What is the future of humanity?
Listen to Nick Bostrom’s most important writing, read by professional narrators.
An Introduction to Nick Bostrom
Start here for a deep dive into his ideas, including: existential risk, the ethics of AI, transhumanism, and wise philanthropy.Listen and subscribe →
Start here for a deep dive into his ideas, including: existential risk, the ethics of AI, transhumanism, and wise philanthropy.
All the academic papers and other material we've recorded.Listen and subscribe →
All the academic papers and other material we've recorded.
Who is Nick Bostrom?
Nick Bostrom is founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.
Bostrom has published many influential books and papers, including ones that introduce the concept of existential risk and the simulation argument. His book Superintelligence helped spark a global conversation about the future of AI.Read more at nickbostrom.com →
26. In Defense of Posthuman Dignity (2005)Positions on the ethics of human enhancement technologies can be (crudely) characterized as ranging from transhumanism to bioconservatism. Transhumanists believe that human enhancement technologies should be made widely available, that individuals should have broad discretion over which of these technologies to apply to themselves, and that parents should normally have the right to choose enhancements for their children-to-be. Bioconservatives (whose ranks include such diverse writers as Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, George Annas, Wesley Smith, Jeremy Rifkin, and Bill McKibben) are generally opposed to the use of technology to modify human nature. A central idea in bioconservativism is that human enhancement technologies will undermine our human dignity. To forestall a slide down the slippery slope towards an ultimately debased ‘posthuman’ state, bioconservatives often argue for broad bans on otherwise promising human enhancements. This paper distinguishes two common fears about the posthuman and argues for the importance of a concept of dignity that is inclusive enough to also apply to many possible posthuman beings. Recognizing the possibility of posthuman dignity undercuts an important objection against human enhancement and removes a distortive double standard from our field of moral vision.
25. A Primer on the Doomsday Argument (1999)Rarely does philosophy produce empirical predictions. The Doomsday argument is an important exception. From seemingly trivial premises it seeks to show that the risk that humankind will go extinct soon has been systematically underestimated. Nearly everybody's first reaction is that there must be something wrong with such an argument. Yet despite being subjected to intense scrutiny by a growing number of philosophers, no simple flaw in the argument has been identified.
24. Propositions Concerning Digital Minds and Society (2022)AIs with moral status and political rights? We'll need a modus vivendi, and it’s becoming urgent to figure out the parameters for that. This paper makes a load of specific claims that begin to stake out a position.
23. Base Camp for Mount Ethics (2022)New theoretical ideas for a big expedition in metaethics.
22. The Transhumanist FAQ (2003)Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase. We formally define it as follows:(1) The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.(2) The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.Transhumanism can be viewed as an extension of humanism, from which it is partially derived. Humanists believe that humans matter, that individuals matter. We might not be perfect, but we can make things better by promoting rational thinking, freedom, tolerance, democracy, and concern for our fellow human beings. Transhumanists agree with this but also emphasize what we have the potential to become. Just as we use rational means to improve the human condition and the external world, we can also use such means to improve ourselves, the human organism. In doing so, we are not limited to traditional humanistic methods, such as education and cultural development. We can also use technological means that will eventually enable us to move beyond what some would think of as “human”.
21. The Future of Human Evolution (2004)Evolutionary development is sometimes thought of as exhibiting an inexorable trend towards higher, more complex, and normatively worthwhile forms of life. This paper explores some dystopian scenarios where freewheeling evolutionary developments, while continuing to produce complex and intelligent forms of organization, lead to the gradual elimination of all forms of being that we care about. We then consider how such catastrophic outcomes could be avoided and argue that under certain conditions the only possible remedy would be a globally coordinated policy to control human evolution by modifying the fitness function of future intelligent life forms.
20. Predictions from Philosophy? (1997)The purpose of this paper, boldly stated, is to propose a new type of philosophy, a philosophy whose aim is prediction. The pace of technological progress is increasing very rapidly: it looks as if we are witnessing an exponential growth, the growth-rate being proportional to the size already obtained, with scientific knowledge doubling every 10 to 20 years since the second world war, and with computer processor speed doubling every 18 months or so. It is argued that this technological development makes urgent many empirical questions which a philosopher could be well-suited to help answering. I try to cover a broad range of interesting problems and approaches, which means that I won't go at all deeply into any of them; I only try to say enough to show what some of the problems are, how one can begin to work with them, and why philosophy is relevant. My hope is that this will whet your appetite to deal with these questions, or at least increase general awareness that they worthy tasks for first-class intellects, including ones which might belong to philosophers.
19. [French Translation] Letter from Utopia (2008)The good life: just how good could it be? A vision of the future from the future.
18. What is a Singleton? (2005)This note introduces the concept of a "singleton" and suggests that this concept is useful for formulating and analyzing possible scenarios for the future of humanity.
17. Embryo Selection for Cognitive Enhancement: Curiosity or Game-changer?Human capital is an important determinant of individual and aggregate economic outcomes, and a major input to scientific progress. It has been suggested that advances in genomics may open up new avenues to enhance human intellectual abilities genetically, complementing environmental interventions such as education and nutrition. One way to do this would be via embryo selection in the context of in vitro fertilization (IVF). In this article, we analyze the feasibility, timescale, and possible societal impacts of embryo selection for cognitive enhancement. We find that embryo selection, on its own, may have significant (but likely not drastic) impacts over the next 50 years, though large effects could accumulate over multiple generations. However, there is a complementary technology – stem cell-derived gametes – which has been making rapid progress and which could amplify the impact of embryo selection, enabling very large changes if successfully applied to humans.
16. Letter from Utopia (2008)The good life: just how good could it be? A vision of the future from the future.
15. Technological Revolutions: Ethics and Policy in the Dark (2006)Technological revolutions are among the most important things that happen to humanity. Ethical assessment in the incipient stages of a potential technological revolution faces several difficulties, including the unpredictability of their long‐term impacts, the problematic role of human agency in bringing them about, and the fact that technological revolutions rewrite not only the material conditions of our existence but also reshape culture and even – perhaps – human nature. This essay explores some of these difficulties and the challenges they pose for a rational assessment of the ethical and policy issues associated with anticipated technological revolutions.
14. Human Enhancement Ethics: The State of the Debate (2008) Introduction Chapter.Are we good enough? If not, how may we improve ourselves? Must we restrict ourselves to traditional methods like study and training? Or should we also use science to enhance some of our mental and physical capacities more directly?Over the last decade, human enhancement has grown into a major topic of debate in applied ethics. Interest has been stimulated by advances in the biomedical sciences, advances which to many suggest that it will become increasingly feasible to use medicine and technology to reshape, manipulate, and enhance many aspects of human biology even in healthy individuals. To the extent that such interventions are on the horizon (or already available) there is an obvious practical dimension to these debates. This practical dimension is underscored by an outcrop of think tanks and activist organizations devoted to the biopolitics of enhancement.
13. How Vulnerable is the World? (2021)Sooner or later a technology capable of wiping out human civilisation might be invented. How far would we go to stop it?
12. Crucial Considerations and Wise Philanthropy (2014)Within a utilitarian context, one can perhaps try to explicate [crucial considerations] as follows: a crucial consideration is a consideration that radically changes the expected value of pursuing some high-level subgoal. The idea here is that you have some evaluation standard that is fixed, and you form some overall plan to achieve some high-level subgoal. This is your idea of how to maximize this evaluation standard. A crucial consideration, then, would be a consideration that radically changes the expected value of achieving this subgoal, and we will see some examples of this. Now if you stop limiting your view to some utilitarian context, then you might want to retreat to these earlier more informal formulations, because one of the things that could be questioned is utilitarianism itself. But for most of this talk we will be thinking about that component.
11. Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development (2003)With very advanced technology, a very large population of people living happy lives could be sustained in the accessible region of the universe. For every year that development of such technologies and colonization of the universe is delayed, there is therefore an opportunity cost: a potential good, lives worth living, is not being realized. Given some plausible assumptions, this cost is extremely large. However, the lesson for utilitarians is not that we ought to maximize the pace of technological development, but rather that we ought to maximize its safety, i.e. the probability that colonization will eventually occur.
10. Are You Living In A Computer Simulation? (2003)This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor‐simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.
9. The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence (2011)The possibility of creating thinking machines raises a host of ethical issues. These questions relate both to ensuring that such machines do not harm humans and other morally relevant beings, and to the moral status of the machines themselves. The first section discusses issues that may arise in the near future of AI. The second section outlines challenges for ensuring that AI operates safely as it approaches humans in its intelligence. The third section outlines how we might assess whether, and in what circumstances, AIs themselves have moral status. In the fourth section, we consider how AIs might differ from humans in certain basic respects relevant to our ethical assessment of them. The final section addresses the issues of creating AIs more intelligent than human, and ensuring that they use their advanced intelligence for good rather than ill.
8. Information Hazards: A Typology of Potential Harms from Knowledge (2011)Information hazards are risks that arise from the dissemination or the potential dissemination of true information that may cause harm or enable some agent to cause harm. Such hazards are often subtler than direct physical threats, and, as a consequence, are easily overlooked. They can, however, be important. This paper surveys the terrain and proposes a taxonomy.
7. The Evolutionary Optimality Challenge (2021)Human beings are a marvel of evolved complexity. When we try to enhance poorly-understood complex evolved systems, our interventions often fail or backfire. It can appear as if there is a “wisdom of nature” which we ignore at our peril. A recognition of this reality can manifest as a vaguely normative intuition, to the effect that it is “hubristic” to try to improve on nature, or that biomedical therapy is ok while enhancement is morally suspect. We suggest that one root of these moral intuitions may be fundamentally prudential rather than ethical. More importantly, we develop a practical heuristic, the “evolutionary optimality challenge”, for evaluating the plausibility that specific candidate biomedical interventions would be safe and effective. This heuristic recognizes the grain of truth contained in “nature knows best” attitudes while providing criteria for identifying the special cases where it may be feasible, with present or near-future technology, to enhance human nature.
6. Where Are They? Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing (2008)When water was discovered on Mars, people got very excited. Where there is water, there may be life. Scientists are planning new missions to study the planet up close. NASA’s next Mars rover is scheduled to arrive in 2010. In the decade following, a Mars Sample Return mission might be launched, which would use robotic systems to collect samples of Martian rocks, soils, and atmosphere, and return them to Earth. We could then analyze the sample to see if it contains any traces of life, whether extinct or still active. Such a discovery would be of tremendous scientific significance. What could be more fascinating than discovering life that had evolved entirely independently of life here on Earth? Many people would also find it heartening to learn that we are not entirely alone in this vast cold cosmos.But I hope that our Mars probes will discover nothing. It would be good news if we find Mars to be completely sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit.Conversely, if we discovered traces of some simple extinct life form—some bacteria, some algae—it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something looking like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life we found, the more depressing the news of its existence would be. Scientifically interesting, certainly, but a bad omen for the future of the human race.
5. The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics (2006)In this article we argue that one prevalent cognitive bias, status quo bias, may be responsible for much of the opposition to human enhancement in general and to genetic cognitive enhancement in particular. Our strategy is as follows: first, we briefly review some of the psychological evidence for the pervasiveness of status quo bias in human decision making. This evidence provides some reason for suspecting that this bias may also be present in analyses of human enhancement ethics. We then propose two versions of a heuristic for reducing status quo bias. Applying this heuristic to consequentialist objections to genetic cognitive enhancements, we show that these objections are affected by status quo bias. When the bias is removed, the objections are revealed as extremely implausible. We conclude that the case for developing and using genetic cognitive enhancements is much stronger than commonly realized.
4. Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority (2012)Existential risks are those that threaten the entire future of humanity. Many theories of value imply that even relatively small reductions in net existential risk have enormous expected value. Despite their importance, issues surrounding human-extinction risks and related hazards remain poorly understood. In this paper, I clarify the concept of existential risk and develop an improved classification scheme. I discuss the relation between existential risks and basic issues in axiology, and show how existential risk reduction (via the maxipok rule) can serve as a strongly action-guiding principle for utilitarian concerns. I also show how the notion of existential risk suggests a new way of thinking about the ideal of sustainability.
3. The Fable of The Dragon Tyrant (2005)Recounts the Tale of a most vicious Dragon that ate thousands of people every day, and of the actions that the King, the People, and an assembly of Dragonologists took with respect thereto.
2. Sharing the World with Digital Minds (2020)The minds of biological creatures occupy a small corner of a much larger space of possible minds that could be created once we master the technology of artificial intelligence. Yet many of our moral intuitions and practices are based on assumptions about human nature that need not hold for digital minds. This points to the need for moral reflection as we approach the era of advanced machine intelligence. Here we focus on one set of issues, which arise from the prospect of digital minds with superhumanly strong claims to resources and influence. These could arise from the vast collective benefits that mass-produced digital minds could derive from relatively small amounts of resources. Alternatively, they could arise from individual digital minds with superhuman moral status or ability to benefit from resources. Such beings could contribute immense value to the world, and failing to respect their interests could produce a moral catastrophe, while a naive way of respecting them could be disastrous for humanity. A sensible approach requires reforms of our moral norms and institutions along with advance planning regarding what kinds of digital minds we bring into existence.
1. The Vulnerable World Hypothesis (2019)Scientiﬁc and technological progress might change people’s capabilities or incentives in ways that would destabilize civilization. For example, advances in DIY biohacking tools might make it easy for anybody with basic training in biology to kill millions; novel military technologies could trigger arms races in which whoever strikes ﬁrst has a decisive advantage; or some economically advantageous process may be invented that produces disastrous negative global externalities that are hard to regulate. This paper introduces the concept of a vulnerable world: roughly, one in which there is some level of technological development at which civilization almost certainly gets devastated by default, i.e. unless it has exited the ‘semi-anarchic default condition’. Several counterfactual historical and speculative future vulnerabilities are analyzed and arranged into a typology. A general ability to stabilize a vulnerable world would require greatly ampliﬁed capacities for preventive policing and global governance. The vulnerable world hypothesis thus offers a new perspective from which to evaluate the risk-beneﬁt balance of developments towards ubiquitous surveillance or a unipolar world order.
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