Existential Risk

Grand futures and existential risk, with Anders Sandberg

Would love to join you, but don’t have the resources to get us there from New Zealand at present.

This is a very complex topic.
Steve wrote of Nett Present Human Happiness, but what is happiness, and why ought we to give it much attention?
Isn’t happiness basically an evolutionary derived neurological hack that has tended in our past to be an aid to survival?

Having survived a terminal cancer diagnosis with a total change in diet, I can attest to it being possible to go for extended periods (months) without much happiness, if the goal is simple survival.

Having been interested in the question of sources of existential risk, and effective risk mitigation strategies for over 40 years (since determining in 1974 that indefinite life extension was a logical possibility with a reasonable likelihood of occurring in my lifespan), I have looked at many levels of logic and strategy, particularly in the exponential set of tech driven strategy spaces.

Sources of risk are many.
In the physical space there are disease (random and intentional), war (random and intentional), famine (random and intentional), flood/fire, earthquake/tsunami, megavolcanoes, Carrington type events, meteors/comets, etc all of which require effective risk mitigation strategies, all of which are technically possible.

In the systems/strategy space, things get much more complex.
Evolution seems to have produced in us systems with about 20 levels of complex cooperative and competitive systems in operation giving our current experience of being.
That complexity seems to be infinitely recursively extensible.

At lower levels there are great risks in simple ideas carried beyond the boundaries of their utility.

And all systems require boundaries to sustain their form.
One must acknowledge the necessity of such boundaries before having a reasonable probability of claiming the infinite freedom and security that exists there. And infinity is an odd idea, there can be greater and lesser infinities, and extinction can be a higher probability even if there exists infinite possible paths to indefinite life. So nothing simple or certain.

And it is in this context that ideas like markets and truth seem to pose the greatest existential risk to us all.

Markets as measures of value require scarcity, and value universal abundance at zero or less.
This despite the fact that most individuals value universal abundance highly.
So in a context of fully automate systems, which are capable of delivering universal abundance of all reasonable needs via exponential growth, markets and money fail to deliver reasonable outcomes.

That is one major problem, and some sort of Universal Basic Income would seem to be a useful transition strategy (though not any sort of final solution).

The idea of Truth is also a major source of risk.

It seems that our experience as conscious entities is of a subconsciously created model of reality, never of reality itself. Reality seems to be far too complex to ever deal with in detail, so evolution has (at many different levels) selected sets of heuristics to simplify it down to something we can consciously deal with.
It seems that the reality beyond our experience is vastly more complex than we are capable of dealing with or appreciating in detail.

As human beings, we all seem to start from relatively simple models supplied by combinations of genetics, culture and experience. Mostly these start as simple binary approximations to something vastly more subtle and complex, and expand from there to the degrees that they do.

Some people hold on to simple ideas like “Truth”, and fail to gain any sort of reasonable understanding of uncertainty or probability or creativity (which all seem to be linked at higher levels).

While there is a certain evolutionary utility in simplifying complex situations to allow rapid decision making, it is a trend that can be taken too far leading to far from optimal outcomes when situations really are complex (and we really do live in very complex times – many nested levels of complexity – more than 20 of them, and growing).

So while I am all for developing effective risk mitigation strategies for existential risk, that must be done in a context that values individual life and individual liberty universally (and liberty always carries risk, just as it carries benefits).

As well as all the dangers above there exist two other major domains of risk:

One is the eternal twins – the tyrannies of the majority and the minority – and the eternal search for balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the groups – both of which are very real, and have real limits.

The other is the risk of the exploration of the chaos of the unknown. That which is unknown is so by definition. Such must be eternal in any infinite domain. Risk must exist. Simply being ignorant of the risk, while it may give psychological comfort, isn’t an effective risk mitigation strategy. Eternal exploration would seem to be the safest of all possible strategies, and it is not without risk.

So there would seem to be plenty there to keep life interesting should any of us manage to live out the rest of eternity with reasonable degrees of freedom (something I would very much like to do).

Evolutionary theory seems to strongly indicate that competitive systems drive systems to simplicity and reduce freedom, while cooperative systems allow for exploration of new levels of complexity.

And that points very strongly to a need to transition away from market measures of value, and to explore whole new levels of cooperative systems (with the requisite levels of attendant strategies to prevent exploitation by cheating strategies – recurs as far as necessary).

[followed by]

The experience we have had here in Kaikoura over the last decade or so has shown that it is agreed values that are most important.
Most can agree that individual life and individual liberty are high values, and both of those demand of each of us that we display responsible action in the social, ecological and spiritual aspects of our being.

Any form requires boundaries for its maintenance.

True liberty lies in acknowledging and accepting those boundaries that are required (and not necessarily any more than that).
That can become an extended conversation, eternal exploration.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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