Nick Bostrom is completing his doctoral work at the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics in London; UK. His aspiration to become a leading intellectual figure has led him to obtain a strong background in philosophy, physics, computational neuroscience, mathematical logic, AI, and psychology.
His undergraduate performance set a Swedish (Lived in the UK since Jan 1996.) record (three and a half full-time programs simultaneously) and in high school he completed the final year in ten weeks. Currently, he is finishing a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science.
In 1997, he co-founded the World Transhumanist Association to promote the study of the ramifications of future technologies. On the non-academic side, he has hosted a radio talk show, had art exhibitions with his own work, authored a volume of poetry, written and directed a piece of drama, studied acting, done competitive debating at intervarsity-level, and performed stand-up comedy in a variety of clubs, theatres and on television. He appears regularly in the media, mostly to discuss the social, ethical or strategic issues raised by anticipated technological breakthroughs.
His areas of expertise are philosophy of science; metaphysics of science; foundations of probability theory; future of technology. His areas of competence are logic; ethics; philosophy of language; philosophy of physics; social philosophy; philosophy of technology and futures studies. Further details may be obtained at his academic web site https://www.analytic.org and his personal web site https://www.hedweb.com/nickb.
(This interview took place during March 2000.)
Resonance: You are primarily a philosopher. In your view, what should a philosopher do? Should the philosopher address everyday concerns, or deal with notions that are more abstract?
Bostrom: There are many legitimate things for philosophers to do, or at least many things that could secure a tenure. I heard the other day of an academic philosopher who had written a book on the philosophy of food. Many of the smartest philosophers active today, however, focus on very abstract issues. I personally do not any longer give such a high priority to these issues, because I think that we will one day build superintelligent machines that can analyze philosophical problems better than any human could. So the resolution of the “eternal questions” can perhaps wait another forty years or so. Meanwhile, I want to concentrate on things that can be of practical relevance before superintelligent machines (or neurologically enhanced humans) make present efforts obsolete.
Resonance: What are your thoughts about “theoretical” philosophy. By this I mean that branch of philosophy that will look more like the Theorem-Proof of mathematics than anything that one can read without years of training.
Bostrom: That’s what I was talking about. Often this is called “analytic philosophy”. I’m an analytic philosopher. It doesn’t have to have to be formal in the sense of using symbols – symbolism is only useful in some particular areas – but it is true that it sometimes get a bit inaccessible. Yet, that is true for other sciences as well. Analytic philosophy is basically a set of logical tools and skills that can be used to clarify conceptual problems in any area. Philosophy is good if you want to tackle big questions.
Resonance: Do you have any “favorite” philosophers?
Bostrom: Not really, although there are various philosophers doing excellent work in different subdisciplines that I have a high opinion of. It is interesting that the best philosophers – for example David Lewis in metaphysics – are almost completely unknown outside the philosophical community.
Resonance: In today’s very busy and very complex world, many people follow, perhaps without knowing it, the stoicism ideals of Marcus Aurelius. What is your view of this philosophical framework for one’s life?
Bostrom: I don’t think we are any more stoic now than people were in the past. Just think of what they had to put up with – physical discomfort, hard manual labor, poor and insufficient diet, no anesthetics etc. Today, we can afford to be a little more “Epicurean” and sensitive. But real happiness will only come when we learn to enhance our well-being and enrich our emotional lives by intervening directly in the brain, through genetic or pharmacological means. This is because human brains appear to have a set-point for happiness. If you win the lottery or your spouse dies, your happiness-level will go temporarily up or down, but it tends to fairly quickly return to the set-point (which seems to be largely genetically determined). So if you want to be happier, you will have to find a way to change the set-point. Alcohol or cocaine gives only a temporary lift (and besides, they are neurotoxic). Some people (even a few who were not depressed) feel permanently better on current psychopharmacological substances. But we need to develop much better tools before the average person will have safe and effective means of getting rid of unnecessary suffering and attaining a satisfactory level of subjective well-being. That day is worth working towards!
Resonance: One of your online papers is titled Predictions from Philosophy? How philosophers could make themselves useful. In this paper, you discuss being able to make predictions. Can you elaborate here?
Bostrom: Well, take the idea I just mentioned about enhancing well-being through psychopharmacology. What consequences will this have on society? How will it interact with other technologies that will be available when this becomes possible? These are important issues. What I was suggesting in Predictions was that philosophers could make a useful contribution here, if they learnt enough about several different disciplines to become polymaths. Because in order to address these issues, one really does need to know about more than one field.
Resonance: In one of your other activities, you introduce and discuss Transhumanism. There is a very detailed discussion of this by you at https://www.transhumanist.org. You define it formally as follows:
- The study of the ramifications, promises and potential dangers of the use of science, technology, creativity, and other means to overcome fundamental human limitations.
- The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally altering the human condition through applied reason, especially by using technology to eliminate aging and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
Where do you see the greatest potential? Moreover, where are the greatest dangers?
Bostrom: I think the greatest potential is if we can become more advanced minds, using nerve-growth factors, linking up with computers, or uploading our neural networks (a.k.a. our minds) into computers and then expanding them. We have no idea of what it would be like to be such a mind, just as a mouse or a cockroach can have no idea of what it is like to be human. And we’re not only talking intellectual ability, but also unfathomable emotional dimensions and pleasures that we cannot conceive of with our current neural endowments. The greatest dangers are that some future technology will be abused and cause the extinction of intelligent life. Destructive uses of molecular nanotechnology (which could be used to build small self-replicating machines, “viruses”, and other nasty things) is something we will need to worry about. The creation of superintelligent machines will also entail a danger. If they are not suitably programmed, they could decide to get rid of their creators.
Resonance: Is civilization entering a critical juncture, where our technological abilities have far outstripped our humanity? By this I mean, colloquially, that we may not be smart enough to manage our technologies so that they don’t end up destroying us.
Bostrom: Yes, that’s a possibility; so we better work hard on getting smarter and wiser, both on an individual level and by improving the way we work together in epistemic communities. Another potential problem is failure of coordination. For example, we might know very well that building military self-replicating nanobots is dangerous, but if there is no realistic way of verifying and enforcing an anti-proliferation treaty among all groups and nations and individuals that could acquire such technology, then this knowledge might not help us much. For if, say, only democratic countries agree to bind themselves to such a treaty, then the world might be worse off than without a treaty, since it would only mean that some less scrupulous country or group gets there first. So even perfect knowledge about the consequences of these technologies would not necessarily allow us to avoid disaster. But I think it would improve the odds.
Resonance: How large is the Transhumanist movement? What kinds of people have become interested in applying its principles?
Bostrom: The World Transhumanist Association, the organization that I am a founder of, currently has about 1600 members. But depending on how you count, the number of transhumanists in the world is of course far greater than that. All sorts of people join – professors, students, software engineers, film producers, writers, stock brokers, truck drivers. People who care about the future and think that technological changes will bring dramatic possibilities over the next decades.
Resonance: How have you applied its principles, beyond providing intellectual support?
Bostrom: A lot of the practical applications are things that not only transhumanists do, for example exercising, or using caffeine to keep you awake when you’re doing intellectual work. I’m also using nicotine chewing gum, because there are some studies showing that nicotine improves performance on complex cognitive tasks (possibly be enhancing concentration and/or memory). Maybe I would have done that even if transhumanism had not existed. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Perhaps the biggest impact transhumanism has had on my personal life is through the set of highly dynamic people I’ve come into contact with. That must have changed me a lot.
Another thing you can do is sign for cryonics. The logic is that when your body is frozen in liquid nitrogen, all biological processes stop. It can then be kept without further tissue degradation indefinitely. Hopefully, technological advancements (in particular, nanotechnology) will at some point in the future reach a level where it becomes possible to repair the freezing damage and reverse the original cause of de-animation. There is no guarantee that it will work (maybe the people in the future are not interested in reanimating you, for example), but it is the conservative medical treatment since it stabilizes your condition until it can be determined whether reanimation is will be possible, whereas if you are cremated or buried you are quite definitely dead, possibly unnecessarily. I’m not signed up right now, but I think it is a rational option for people who can afford it and who like to be alive. I will probably buy a cryonics contract in the near future.
Resonance: Where do you see transhumanism in 50 years time? Is genetic engineering considered a part of this philosophy?
Bostrom: In 50 years time transhumanism will probably be obsolete, in that many of the future events which we try to understand and navigate towards will already have happened by then. Genetic engineering? Why, that’s just one tool among many others. It’s futile to try to isolate some technologies as especially “transhuman”. Where would we be without the wheel? Or without the social technology of peer-reviewed publications? What would be the point in saying that one technology was “not part of the philosophy”?
Resonance: You appear to have been exceptionally talented as a student. What are some of your skills that permitted you to succeed?
Bostrom: [blush] The cultural climate in Sweden at the time when I was a student there was one in which egalitarianism was big, and where protruding too much beyond the average was considered both impossible and undesirable. So for me, it was important to revolt against that and not to accept false limits. A “can-do” attitude is empowering.
Resonance: Speaking to a young person of about 13-14 years old, just entering High School, what advice would you offer?
Bostrom: Floss! … But seriously, that really depends on the person. It is a mistake to see “13-14 years old” as some sort of homogenous block that one can give general advice to.
Resonance: Suppose then we narrow the group down to those who are intellectually gifted and motivated?
Bostrom: I really don’t know… Well, I suppose it’s never too early to start thinking and learning about the ways in which the world will be very different by the time they have grown up. So I’d actually advice them to learn about transhumanism.
Resonance: What are the great-unanswered questions in science today and in the forseeable future?
Bostrom: How does the brain work? – We are just now taking the first steps towards understanding this. We have some understanding of basic sensory processing, especially in primary visual cortex. We have a very rudimentary knowledge of the emotional systems in the limbic system and hypothalamus. We know something about learning on the synaptic level and about the hippocampus, but we don’t know how the brain stores structured non-topological representations (for example, of English sentences such as “John loves Mary.” which is different from “Mary loves John.” although containing the same constituents). And we know virtually nothing about how higher cognitive processing is implemented in the brain. – Another big question is, What is the large-scale structure of cosmos, and what are its laws? Is the universe infinite, as recent evidence suggests? Is the universe only one in an ensemble of universes, a “multiverse”, as many models of quantum inflation imply? What will a theory of quantum gravity look like? It will be fun to learn the answers.
Resonance: Why are so few scientists seen in positions of policy authority? Where is their education going wrong?
Bostrom: If politics were more about being right rather than just being persuasive, scientists would probably have more say, and they might then find it worthwhile to invest in acquiring the relevant skills. Economist Robin Hanson has developed an interesting idea for how this could be partly achieved. Basically, one creates a market where investors can bet on the consequences of possible political decisions, and one encourages society to take the trading prices of these “idea futures” into account in choosing which policy to pursue (because these prices will reflect a consensus estimate of the odds of the various consequences obtaining, conditional on a given policy being adopted). Such markets are currently prohibited in many countries by anti-gambling laws, so the first step could be to lobby for a change in the laws so that experiments could be carried out with real money.
Resonance: Are institutions of higher education appropriately preparing this nation’s scientists for the future as you see it? Can you compare the British educational system to the one in Sweden?
Bostrom: A nice thing about the Swedish system is that students have the opportunity to construct their own education programs by picking courses from whatever areas they feel like, subject only to weak constraints.
One shortcoming I see generally is that while a lot of time is spent on teaching students how to do research, there is very little emphasis on critically thinking about what to research. As a result, many academics waste their whole careers on issues that aren’t really that important. The mentality is that as long as you’re applying the right methodology and keep the research papers coming, then you’re ok, especially if you work in a popular area. You are allowed to criticize somebody’s work, but it’s considered rude to suggest that the work is not worth doing in the first place. There is very little serious thought about what are important questions to research, except perhaps by people who sit in funding committees.
Resonance: In the US, we have a very difficult time creating interest and excitement amongst our youngsters. Where do we lose the scientific and mathematical interests of our junior and high school students?
Bostrom: We didn’t evolve to enjoy mathematics. Those who do are freaks. A really inspirational teacher who can convey the real meaning of mathematics and show how it all hangs together will no doubt make the subject more exciting. However, it is probably more feasible to develop a drug that increases intellectual curiosity (maybe by raising acetylcoline and/or dopamine levels) than it is to install one truly inspirational teacher in every class room.
Resonance: Then, can we assume that you believe that humanity has reached its effective evolutionary limit, and now, given the state of our scientific and medical knowledge, start to take advantage of this knowledge in order to replace evolution by “revolution”?
Bostrom: I don’t know what you mean by “effective evolutionary limit”. What I’m saying is that if you want kids to be excited about mathematics, you ultimately have to influence their brains (since enjoyment is something that is felt by or via the brain). Educationalists typically try to influence their brains by changing the environment (nice textbooks, good teachers, stimulating interaction with other students, encouragement, etc.). This is all very well and we should certainly seek to continue to improve in those areas. But another way of influencing the brain is by changing it directly, say by pharmacological means. Right now we are not very good at that but it is potentially a very powerful way of achieving certain things, especially emotional states such as curiosity and excitement, which some people find very hard to sustain using exclusively environmental stimuli. People who are waxing about how beautiful or fascinating mathematics is are usually people who enjoy mathematics, and they need to be aware that not everybody has a brain that experiences reward signals when making intellectual efforts in the abstract realm. Some get more reward signals by riding very fast on a motorcycle. There is a genetic factor in this, and it might well be mediated by some fairly simple mechanism – the levels of one or two types of neurotransmitters perhaps – which could be relatively easily manipulated through drugs, but may be very hard to change through exclusively environmental inputs.
Among technologies which only influence the brain indirectly by manipulating the environment, I think that computer-aided learning has quite good prospects for making learning more fun and effective.
Resonance: How far into the future do you think it is possible to predict scientific and engineering advances?
Bostrom: The very long run is in some respects easier to predict than the medium run. If we avoid disasters, then it is reasonable to think that in the very long run we will learn to do most things that are physically possible to do. What is physically possible, we can in many cases figure out today. Eric Drexler’s Nanosystems, for example, shows that molecular nanotechnology is physically possible and sketches some routs which could take us from here to there. It is hard to say whether the world will have nanotechnology in ten, twenty, or thirty years’ time from now. But it seems a safe bet that it will have it in 10,000 AD.
Resonance: Would you change the educational path you have chosen?Bostrom: I would have spent more time on economics, biochemistry and computer science, and less on mathematical logic and non-contemporary philosophy.
Resonance: Are students in the liberal arts receiving sufficient introduction to science and engineering? And are students in the sciences receiving enough of the liberal arts?
Bostrom: Sufficient for what? Ideally, everybody should study everything, but there’s not time for that.
Resonance: Can a degree in physics be viewed as a liberal education?
Bostrom: A degree in physics is a superb general-purpose preparation. Unless you are really passionate about physics however, you want to switch horse and get your postgraduate degree in something else. I think physics is over-privileged in terms of attracting bright people. Sure physics is important, but many other sciences are as well. Even a very smart person will probably make only a small contribution in physics, but she might well make a breakthrough if she goes into a less difficult field.
Resonance: Can comparisons be made between today’s and yesterday’s undergraduate students?
Bostrom: Not only students but people in general seem to be more intelligent now than one or two generations ago. This is known as the Flynn effect: IQ scores are rising, substantially. This holds true even when you control for all the obvious factors, such as increased familiarity with test situations etc. Nobody yet knows what the explanation is.
Resonance: What is the role, if any, of government in encouraging innovation?
Bostrom: Research and science have many positive externalities (good effects that can’t be patented) and so one would expect them to be undersupplied by the market, and I think that government consequently has a role in funding these activities.
Then there is patent legislation and enforcement, where the government currently plays a central role. I’m basically agnostic about whether this ought to change in some way. For example, maybe the patents on software should be for shorter time periods than patents on more old-fashioned inventions, since the product cycles in the software business are so rapid.
I have a feeling that the FDA is probably slowing innovation in health technology because of its bureaucracy and because it doesn’t permit people to make their own choices about what levels of risk to accept in trying new treatments. Couldn’t much of what the FDA does be better achieved if rather than outlawing things they simply labeled drugs “approved by FDA” or “not approved by FDA” and allowed individuals to decide whether to trust FDA or some foreign country’s regulatory agency or a private assessment company?
Resonance: What issues prevent government from being more effective?
Bostrom: A fundamental problem is that voters don’t have any incentive to study which politicians and policies to vote for. So most voters are ignorant are careless. Contrast this with management in corporations, which is under constant scrutiny from its major shareholders, which have a financial incentive to figure out what the management is doing. The major shareholders’ task is made easier because the share price contains a lot of information about how successful the management is. And who provides that information? All the people who trade the shares, who again have a financial incentive to invest only in the companies with the brightest prospects. And if all these checks fail, there is marketplace competition – badly run companies eventually go bankrupt. All these factors put pressure on management to perform well. Despite this, it is not so rare that companies are fairly badly managed. But in government, where there are none of these checks, one would expect bad management to be the norm rather than the exception.
Resonance: What are the roles of art in society? Does art do something for society that cannot be done by anything else?
Bostrom: Yes, but art is a broad term. The really important (in terms of social impact) art forms today are ones like film/TV, pop music, and to a less degree fiction literature. Not paintings or postmodern installations sitting in some museum. So I think art education could focus more on these mainstream media which people are actually using.
Resonance: Many of the ideas that we take today as potentially achievable were first thought about in the minds of science fiction authors. It appears that stories such as Star Trek, set hundreds of years in the future, are really very conservative in their predictions of scientific and engineering advancements. Have you found science fiction a motivation to some of your ideas?
Bostrom: I don’t read much science fiction. I find it tedious to have to read through the whole story line just to get to the thoughts the author might have about the future. But science fiction has had a big influence on many other transhumanists, who in turn have influenced me. There is a danger reading science fiction. I’ve noticed among many that read a lot of science fiction a bias towards futures that makes for an interesting narrative. But just because a possible scenario has a poor story-line doesn’t necessarily make it improbable (e.g. “Intelligent life goes extinct.”) or even undesirable (“…And everyone lived happily forever after.”). One would expect the same thing in the media, a bias in favor of good stories over descriptively boring but plausible scenarios. We need to be on our guard against this intellectual hazard.
Resonance: How are art and science intertwined? Does science have a role in art?
Bostrom: Yes. Science is an increasingly important part of the human condition and it deserves to be aesthetically interpreted and reflected in art.
Resonance: And what about the role of art in science?
Bostrom: Making textbooks pretty is a good idea. Beyond that, art in science can get rather silly in my experience. Beauty in science results from focusing on content rather than form.
Resonance: If you could solve just one of humanity’s problems, which one would it be?
Bostrom: Making sure nanotechnology will be used only for beneficial and not for destructive purposes.