By Jan M. Brauner and Friederike M. Grosse-Holz
Work on this article has been funded by the Centre for Effective Altruism, but the article represents the personal views of the authors.
If most expected value or disvalue lies in the billions of years to come, altruists should plausibly focus their efforts on improving the long-term future. It is not clear whether reducing the risk of human extinction would, in expectation, improve the long-term future, because a future with humanity may be better or worse than one without it.
From a consequentialist, welfarist view, most expected value (EV) or disvalue of the future comes from scenarios in which (post-)humanity colonizes space, because these scenarios contain most expected beings. Simply extrapolating the current welfare (part 1.1) of humans and farmed and wild animals, it is unclear whether we should support spreading sentient beings to other planets.
From a more general perspective (part 1.2), future agents will likely care morally about the same things we find valuable or about any of the things we are neutral towards. It seems very unlikely that they would see value exactly where we see disvalue. If future agents are powerful enough to shape the world according to their preferences, this asymmetry implies the EV of future agents colonizing space is positive from many welfarist perspectives.
If we can defer the decision about whether to colonize space to future agents with more moral and empirical insight, doing so creates option value (part 1.3). However, most expected future disvalue plausibly comes from futures controlled by indifferent or malicious agents. Such “bad” agents will make worse decisions than we, currently, could. Thus, the option value in reducing the risk of human extinction is small.
The universe may not stay empty, even if humanity goes extinct (part 2.1). A non-human animal civilization, extraterrestrials or uncontrolled artificial intelligence that was created by humanity might colonize space. These scenarios may be worse than (post-)human space colonization in expectation. Additionally, with more moral or empirical insight, we might realize that the universe is already filled with beings or things we care about (part 2.2). If the universe is already filled with disvalue that future agents could alleviate, this gives further reason to reduce extinction risk.
In practice, many efforts to reduce the risk of human extinction also have other effects of long-term significance. Such efforts might often reduce the risk of global catastrophes (part 3.1) from which humanity would recover, but which might set technological and social progress on a worse track than they are on now. Furthermore, such efforts often promote global coordination, peace and stability (part 3.2), which is crucial for safe development of pivotal technologies and to avoid negative trajectory changes in general.
Aggregating these considerations, efforts to reduce extinction risk seem positive in expectation from most consequentialist views, ranging from neutral on some views to extremely positive on others. As efforts to reduce extinction risk also seem highly leveraged and time-sensitive, they should probably hold prominent place in the long-termist EA portfolio.
The future of Earth-originating life might be vast, lasting millions of years and containing many times more beings than currently alive (Bostrom, 2003). If future beings matter morally, it should plausibly be a major moral concern that the future plays out well. So how should we, today, prioritise our efforts aimed at improving the future?
We could try to reduce the risk of human extinction. A future with humanity would be drastically different from one without it. Few other factors seems as pivotal for how the world will look like in the millions of years to come as whether or not humanity survives the next few centuries and millennia. Effective efforts to reduce the risk of human extinction could thus have immense long-term impact. If we were sure that this impact was positive, extinction risk reduction would plausibly be one of the most effective ways to improve the future.
However, it is not at first glance clear that reducing extinction risk is positive from an impartial altruistic perspective. For example, future humans might have terrible lives that they can’t escape from, or humane values might exert little control over the future, resulting in future agents causing great harm to other beings. If indeed it turned out that we weren’t sure if extinction risk reduction was positive, we would prioritize other ways to improve the future without making extinction risk reduction a primary goal.
To inform this prioritisation, in this article we estimate the expected value of efforts to reduce the risk of human extinction.
Throughout this article, we base our considerations on two assumptions:
Most arguments further assume that the state the world is brought into by one’s actions is what matters morally (as opposed to e.g. the actions following a specific rule). We thus take a consequentialist view, judging potential actions by their consequences.
Parts 1.1 and 1.2 further take a welfarist perspective, assuming that what matters morally in states of the world is the welfare of sentient beings. In a way, that means assuming our reflected preferences are welfarist. Welfare will be broadly defined as including pleasure and pain, but also complex values or the satisfaction of preferences. From this perspective, a state of the world is good if it is good for the individuals in this world. Across several beings, welfare will be aggregated additivelyfn-1, no matter how far in the future an expected being lives. Additional beings with positive (negative) welfare coming into existence will count as morally good (bad). In short, parts 1.1 and 1.2 take the view of welfarist consequentialism with a total view on population ethics (see e.g. (Greaves, 2017)), but the arguments also hold for other similar views.
If we make the assumptions outlined above, nearly all expected value or disvalue in a future with humanity arises from scenarios in which (post-)humans colonize space. The colonizable universe seems very large, so scenarios with space colonization likely contain a lot more beings than scenarios with earthbound life only (Bostrom, 2003). Conditional on human survival, space colonization also does not seem too unlikely, thus nearly all expected future beings live in scenarios with space colonizationfn-2. We thus take “a future with humanity” to mean “(post-)human space colonization” for the main text and briefly discuss what a future with only earthbound humanity might look like in Appendix 1.
Ultimately, we want to know “What is the expected value (EV) of efforts to reduce the risk of human extinction?”. We will address this question in three parts:
We stress that the conclusions of the different parts should not be separated from the context. Since we are reasoning about a topic as complex and uncertain as the long-term future, we take several views, aiming to ultimately reach a verdict by aggregating across them.
The moral view on which this article is based is very broad and can include enormously different value systems, in particular different degrees of ‘disvalue-focus’. We consider a moral view disvalue-focused if it holds the prevention/reduction of disvalue is (vastly) more important than the creation of value. One example are views that hold the prevention or reduction of suffering as an especially high moral priority.
The degree of disvalue focus one takes chiefly influences the EV of reducing extinction risk.
From very disvalue-focused views, (post-) human space colonization may not seem desirable even if the future contains a much better ratio of value to disvalue than today. There is little to gain from space colonization if the creation of value (e.g. happy beings) morally matters little. On the other hand, space colonization would multiply thesentient beings and thereby multiply the absolute amount of disvalue.
At first glance it thus seems that reducing the risk of human extinction is not a good idea from a strongly disvalue-focused perspective. However, the value of extinction risk reduction for disvalue-focused views gets shifted upwards considerably by the arguments in part 2 and 3 of this article.
Space colonization is hard. By the time our technology is advanced enough, human civilization will possibly have changed considerably in many ways. However, to get a first grasp of the expected value of the long-term future, we can model it as a rough extrapolation of the present. What if humanity as we know it colonized space? There would be vastly more sentient beings, including humans, farmed animals and wild animalsfn-5. To estimate the expected value of this future, we will consider three questions:
How many humans, farmed animals and wild animals will exist?
How should we weigh the welfare of different beings?
For each of humans, farmed animals and wild animals:
Is the current average welfare net positive/average life worth living?
How will welfare develop in the future?
We will then attempt to draw a conclusion. Note that throughout this consideration, we take an individualistic welfarist perspective on wild animals. This perspective stands in contrast to e.g. valuing functional ecosystems and might seem unusual, but is increasingly popular.
In today’s world, both farmed and wild animals outnumber humans by far. There are about 3-4 times more farmed land animals and about 13 times more farmed fishfn-6 than humans alive. Wild animals prevail over farmed animals, with about 10 times more wild birds than farmed birds and 100 times more wild mammals than farmed mammals alive at any point. Moving on to smaller wild animals, the numbers increase again, with 10 000 times more vertebrates than humans, and between 100 000 000 - 10 000 000 000 times more insects and spiders than humansfn-7.
In the future, the relative number of animals compared to humans will likely decrease considerably.
Farmed animals will not be alive if animal farming substantially decreases or stops, which seems more likely than not for both for moral and economical reasons. Humanity’s moral circle seems to have been expanding throughout history (Singer, 2011) and further expansion to animals may well lead us to stop farming animals.fn-8 Also financially, plant-based meat alternatives or lab-grown meat will likely develop to be more efficient than growing animals (Tuomisto and Teixeira de Mattos, 2011). However, none of these developments seems unequivocally destined to end factory-farmingfn-9, and the historical track record shows that meat consumption per head has been growing for > 50 yearsfn-10. Overall, it seems likely but not absolutely clear that the number of farmed animals relative to humans will be smaller in the future. For wild animals, we can extrapolate from a historical trend of decreasing wild animal populations. Even if wild animals were spread to other planets for terraforming, the animal / human ratio would likely be lower than today.
To determine the EV of the future, we need to aggregate welfare across different beings. It seems like we should weigh the experience of a human, a cow and a beetle differently when adding up, but by how much? This is a hard question with no clear answer, but we outline some approaches here. The degree to which an animal is conscious (“the lights are on”, the being is aware of its experiences, emotions and thoughts), or the confidence we have in an animal being conscious, can serve as a parameter by which to weight welfare. To arrive at a number for this parameter, we can use proxies such as brain mass, neuron count and mental abilities directly. Alternatively, we may aggregate these proxies with other considerations into an estimate of confidence that a being is conscious. For instance, the Open Philanthropy Project estimates the probability that cows are conscious at 80%.
Currently, the average human life seems to be perceived as being worth living. Survey data and experience sampling suggests that most humans are quite content with their lives and experience more positive than negative emotions on a day-to-day basisfn-11. If they find it not worth living, humans can take their life, but relatively few people commit suicide (Suicide accounts for 1.7 % of all deaths in US).fn-12 We could conclude that human welfare is positive.
We should, however, note the two caveats in this conclusion. First, a live can be perceived as worth living even if it is negative from a welfarist perspective.fn-13 Second, the average life might not be worth living if the suffering of the worst off was sufficiently more intense than the happiness of the majority of people.
Overall, it seems that from a large majority of consequentialist views, the current aggregated human welfare is positive.
In the future, we will probably make progress that will improve the average human life. Historic trends have been positive across many indicators of human well-being, knowledge, intelligence and capability. On a global scale, violence is declining, cooperation increasing (Pinker, 2011). Yet, the trend does not include all indicators: subjective welfare has (in recent times) remained stable or improved very little, and mental health problems are more prevalent. These developments have sparked research into positive psychology and mental health treatment, which is slowly bearing fruit. As more fundamental issues are gradually improved, humanity will likely shift more resources towards actively improving welfare and mental health. Powerful tools like genetic design and virtual reality could be used to further improve the lives of the broad majority as well as the worst-off. While there are good reasons to assume that human welfare in the future will be more positive than now, we still face uncertainties (e.g. from low probability events like malicious, but very powerful autocratic regimes and unknown unknowns).
Currently, 93% of farmed animals live on factory farms in conditions that likely make their lives not worth living. Although there are positive sides to animal life on farms compared to life in the wildfn-14, these are likely outweighed by negative experiencesfn-15. Most farmed animals also lack opportunities to exhibit naturally desired behaviours like grooming. While there is clearly room for improvement in factory farming conditions, the question “is the average life worth living?” must be answered separately for each situation and remains controversialfn-16. On average, a factory farm animal life today probably has negative welfare.
In the future, factory farming is likely to be abolished or modified to improve animal welfare as our moral circle expands to animals (see above). We can thus be moderately optimistic that farm animal welfare will improve and/or less farm animals will be alive.
Currently, we know too little about the lives and perception of wild animals to judge whether their average welfare is positive or negative. We see evidence of both positivefn-17 and negativefn-18 experiences. Meanwhile, our perspective on wild animals might be skewed towards charismatic big mammals living relatively good lives. We thus overlook the vast majority of wild animals, based both on biomass and neural count. Most smaller wild animal species (invertebrates, insects etc) are r-selected, with most individuals living very short lives before dying painfully. While vast numbers of those lives seem negative from a welfarist perspective, we may chose to weight them less based on the considerations outlined above. In summary, most welfarist views would probably judge the aggregated welfare of wild animals as negative. The more one thinks that smaller, r-selected animals matter morally, the more negative average wild animal welfare becomes.
In future, we may reduce the suffering of wild animals, but it is unclear whether their welfare would be positive. Future humans may be driven by the expansion of the moral circle and empowered by technological progress (e.g. biotechnology) to improve wild animal lives. However, if average wild animal welfare remains negative, it would still be bad to increase wild animal numbers by space colonization.
It remains unclear whether the EV of a future in which a human civilization similar to the one we know colonized space is positive or negative.
To quantify the above considerations from a welfarist perspective, we created a mathematical model. This model yields a positive EV for a future with space colonization if different beings are weighted by neuron count and a negative EV if they are weighted by sqrt(neuron count). In the first case, average welfare is positive, driven by the spreading of happy (post-)humans. In the second case, average welfare is negative as suffering wild animals are spread. The model is also based on a series of low-confidence assumptionsfn-19, alteration of which could flip the sign of the outcome again.
More qualitatively, the EV of an extrapolated future heavily depends on one’s moral views. The degree to which one is focused on avoiding disvalue seems especially important. Consider that every day, humans and animals are being tortured, murdered, or in psychological despair. Those who would walk away from Omelas might also walk away from current and extrapolated future worlds.
Finally, we should note how little we know about the world and how this impacts our confidence in considerations about an extrapolated future. To illustrate the extent of our empirical uncertainty, consider that we are extrapolating from 100 000 years of human existence, 10 000 years of civilizational history and 200 years of industrial history to potentially 500 million years on earth (and much longer in the rest of the universe). If people in the past had guessed about the EV of the future in a similar manner, they would most likely have gotten it wrong (e.g. they might not have considered moral relevance of animals, or not have known that there is a universe to potentially colonize). We might be missing crucial considerations now in analogous ways.
While part 1.1 extrapolates directly from today’s world, part 1.2 takes a more abstract approach. To estimate the EV of (post-)human space-colonization in more broadly applicable terms, we consider three questions:
We then attempt to estimate the EV of future agents colonizing space from a welfarist consequentialist view.
Since climbing down from the trees, humanity has changed the world a great deal. We have done this by developing increasingly powerful tools to satisfy our preferences (i.e. preferences to eat, stay healthy and warm, and communicate with friends (even if they are far away)). As far as humans have altruistic preferences, powerful tools have made acting on them less costly. For instance, if you see someone is badly hurt and want to help, you don’t have to carry them home and care for them yourself anymore, you can just call an ambulance. However, powerful tools have also made it easier to cause harm, either by satisfying harmful preferences (e.g. weapons of mass destruction) or as a side-effect of our actions that we are indifferent to. Technologies that enable factory farming do enormous harm to animals, although they were developed to satisfy a preference for eating meat, not for harming animalsfn-20.
It seems likely that future agents will have much more powerful tools than we do today. These tools could be used to make the future better or worse. For instance, biotechnology and genetic engineering could help us cure diseases and live longer, but they could also enforce inequality if treatments are too expensive for most people. Advanced AI could make all kinds of services much cheaper but could also be misused. For more potent and complex tools, the stakes are even higher. Consider the example of technologies that facilitate space colonization. These tools could be used to cause the existence of many times more happy lives than would be possible on Earth, but also to spread suffering.
In summary, future agents will have the tools to create enormous value (more examples here) or disvalue (more examples here).fn-21 It is thus important to consider the values/preferences that future agents might have.
When referring to future agents’ preferences, we distinguish between ‘self-regarding preferences’, i.e. preferences about states of affairs that directly affect an agent, and ‘other-regarding preferences’, i.e. preferences about the world that remain even if an agent is not directly affected (see footnotefn-22 for a precise definition). Future agents’ other-regarding preferences will be crucial for the value of the future. For example, if the future contains powerless beings in addition to powerful agents, the welfare of the former will depend to a large degree on the other-regarding preferences of the latter (much more about that later).
Most people alive today clearly have (positive and negative) other-regarding preferences, but will this be the case for future agents? It has been argued that over time, other-regarding preferences could be stripped away by Darwinian selection. We explore this argument and several counterarguments in appendix 2. We conclude that future agents will, in expectation, have a considerable fraction of other-regarding preferences.
We want to estimate the EV of a future shaped by powerful tools according to future agents’ other-regarding preferences. In this article we assume that we should ultimately aim to satisfy our reflected moral preferences, the preferences we would have after an idealized reflection process (as discussed in the "Moral assumptions" section above). Thus, we must establish how future agents’ other-regarding preferences (FAP) compare to our reflected other-regarding preferences (RP). Briefly put, we need to ask: “would we want the same things as these future agents who will shape the world?”
FAP can be somewhere on a spectrum from parallel to orthogonal to anti-parallel to RP. If FAP and RP are parallel, future agents agree exactly with our reflected preferences. If the are anti-parallel, future agents see value exactly where we see disvalue. And if the are orthogonal, future agents value what we regard as neutral, and vice versa. We now examine how FAP will be distributed on this spectrum.
Assume that future agents care about moral reflection. They will then have better conditions for an idealized reflection process than we have, for several reasons:
Given these prerequisites, it seems that future agents’ moral reflection would in expectation lead to FAP that are parallel rather than anti-parallel to RP. How much overlap between FAP and RP to expect remains difficult to estimate.fn-24
However, scenarios in which future agents do not care about moral reflection might substantially influence the EV of the future. For example, it might be likely that humanity loses control and the agents shaping the future bear no resemblance to humans. This could be the case if developing controlled artificial general intelligence (AGI) is very hard, and the probability that misaligned AGI will be developed is high (in this case, the future agent is a misaligned AI).fn-25
Even if (post-)humans remain in control, human moral intuitions might turn out to be contingent the starting conditions of the reflection process and not very convergent across the species. Thus, FAP may not develop into any clear direction, but rather drift randomlyfn-26. Very strong and fast goal drift might be possible if future agents include digital (human) minds because such minds would not be restrained by the cultural universals rooted in the physical brain architecture.
If it turns out that FAP develop differently from RP, FAP will in expectation be orthogonal to RP rather than anti-parallel. The space of possible preferences is vast, so it seems much more likely that FAP will be completely different from RP, rather than exactly oppositefn-27 (See footnotefn-28 for an example). In summary, FAP parallel or orthogonal to RP both seem likely, but a large fraction of FAP being anti-parallel to RP seems fairly unlikely. This main claim seems true for most “idealized reflection processes” that people would choose.
However, FAP being between parallel and orthogonal to RP in expectation does not necessarily imply the future will be good. Actions driven by (orthogonal) FAP could have very harmful side-effects, as judged by our reflected preferences. Harmful side-effects could be devastating especially if future agents are indifferent towards beings we (would on reflection) care about morally. Such negative side-effects might outweigh positive intended effects, as has happened in the pastfn-29. Indeed, some of the most discussed “risks of astronomical future suffering” are examples of negative side-effects.fn-30
Above we argued that we can expect some overlap between future agents’ other-regarding preferences (FAP) and our reflected other-regarding preferences (RP). We can thus be somewhat optimistic about the future in a very general way, independent of our first-order moral views, if we ultimately aim to satisfy our reflected preferences. In the following section, we will drop some of that generality. We will examine what future agents’ preferences will imply for the welfare of future beings. In doing so, we assume that we would on reflection hold an aggregative, welfarist altruistic view (as explained in the background-section).
If we assume these specific RP, can we still expect FAP to overlap with them? After all, other-regarding preferences anti-parallel to welfarist altruism – such as sadistic, hateful, revengeful preferences - clearly exist within present day humanity. If current human values transferred broadly into the future, should we then expect a large fraction of FAP being anti-parallel to welfarist altruism? Probably not. We argue in appendix 3 that although this is hard to quantify, the large majority of human other-regarding preferences seem positive.
Assuming somewhat welfarist FAP, we explore what the future might be like for two types of beings: Future agents (post-humans) who have powerful tools to shape the world, and powerless future beings. To aggregate welfare for moral evaluation, we need to estimate how many beings of each type will exist. Powerful agents will likely be able to create powerless beings as “tools” if this seems useful for them. Sentient “tools” could include animals, farmed for meat production or spread to other planets for terraforming (e.g. insects), but also digital sentient minds, like sentient robots for task performance or simulated minds created for scientific experimentation or entertainment. The last example seems especially relevant, as digital minds could be created in vast amounts if digital sentience is possible at all, which does not seem unlikely. If we find we morally care about these “tools” upon reflection, the future would contain many times more powerless beings than powerful agents.
The EV of the future thus depends on the welfare of both powerful agents and powerless beings, with the latter potentially much more relevant than the former. We now consider each in turn, asking:
Future agents will have powerful tools to satisfy their self-regarding preferences and be somewhat benevolent towards each other. Thus, we can expect future agents’ welfare to be increased through intended effects of their actions.
Side-effects of future agents’ actions negative for other agents’ welfare would mainly arise if their civilization is not coordinated well. However, compromise and cooperation seem to usually benefit all involved parties, indicating that we can expect future agents to develop good tools for coordination and use them a lot.fn-31 Coordination also seems essential to avert many extinction risks. Thus, a civilization that avoided extinction so successfully that it colonizes space is expected to be quite coordinated.
Taken together, vastly more resources will likely be used in ways that improve the welfare of powerful agents than in ways that diminish their welfare. From the big majority of welfarist views, future agents’ aggregated welfare is thus expected to be positive. This conclusion is also supported by human history, as improved tools, cooperation and altruism have increased the welfare of most humans and average human lives are seen as worth living by many (see part 1.1).
Assuming that future agents are mostly indifferent towards the welfare of their “tools”, their actions would affect powerless beings only via (in expectation random) side-effects. It is thus relevant to know the “default” level of welfare of powerless beings. If the affected powerless beings were animals shaped by evolution, their default welfare might be net negative. This is because evolutionary pressure might result in a pain-pleasure asymmetry with suffering being much more intense than pleasure (see footnote for further explanationfn-32). Such evolutionary pressure would not apply for designed digital sentience. Given that our experience with welfare is restricted to animals (incl. humans) shaped by evolution, it is unclear what the default welfare of digital sentients would be. If there is at least some moral concern for digital sentience, it seems fairly likely that the creating agents would prefer to give their sentient tools net positive welfarefn-33.
If future agents intend to affect the welfare of powerless beings, they might - besides from treating their sentient “tools” accordingly - create (dis-)value optimized sentience: minds that are optimized for extreme positive or negative welfare. For example, future agents could simulate many minds in bliss, or many minds in agony. The motivation for creating (dis-)value optimized sentience could be altruism, sadism or strategic reasonsfn-34. Creating (dis-)value optimized sentience would likely produce much more (negative) welfare per unit of invested resources than the side-effects on sentient tools mentioned above, as sentient tools are optimized for task performance, not production of (dis-)valuefn-35. (Dis-)value optimized sentience would then be the main determinant of the expected value of post-human space colonization, and not side-effects on sentient tools.
FAP may be orthogonal to welfarist altruism, in which case little (dis-)value optimized sentience will be produced. However, we expect a much larger fraction of FAP to be parallel to welfarist altruism than anti-parallel to it, and thus expect that future agents will use many more resources to create value-optimized sentience than disvalue-optimized sentience. The possibility of (dis-)value optimized sentience should increase the net expected welfare of powerless future beings. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the moral implications of one resource-unit spent optimized for value or disvalue (see e.g. here and here). On the one hand, (dis)value optimized sentience created without evolutionary pressure might be equally efficient in producing moral (dis)value, but used a lot more to produce value. On the other hand, disvalue optimized sentience might lead to especially intense suffering. Many people intuitively give more moral importance to the prevention of suffering the worse it gets (e.g. prioritarianism).
In summary, it seems plausible that a little concern for the welfare of sentient tools could go a long way. Even if most future agents were completely indifferent towards sentient tools (=majority of FAP orthogonal to RP), positive intended effects – creation of value-optimized sentience – could plausibly weigh heavier than side-effects.
Morally evaluating the future scenarios sketched in part 1.2 is hard because we are uncertain. Both empirically uncertain what the future will be like and morally uncertain what our intuitions will be like. The key unanswered questions are
Taken together, we believe that the arguments in this section indicate that the EV of (post)-human space colonization would only be negative from relatively strongly disvalue-focused views. From the majority, but not overwhelming majority, of welfarist views the EV of (post)-human space colonization seems positive.fn-36,fn-37
In parts 1.1 and 1.2, we directly estimated the EV of (post-)human space colonization and found it to be very uncertain. In the remaining parts, we will improve our estimate via other approaches that are less dependent on specific predictions about how (post-)humans will shape the future.
We are often uncertain about what the right thing to do is. If we can defer the decision to someone wiser than ourselves, this is generally a good call. We can also defer across time: we can keep our options open for now, and hope our descendants will be able to make better decisions. This option value may give us a reason to prefer to keep our options open.
For instance, our descendants may be in a better position to judge whether space colonization would be good or bad. If they can see that space colonization would be negative, they can refrain from (further) colonizing space: They have the option to limit the harm. In contrast, if humanity goes extinct, the option of (post)-human space colonization is forever lost. So avoiding extinction creates ‘option value’(e.g. Macaskill).fn-38 This specific type of ‘option value’ - from future agents choosing not to colonize space - and not the more general value of keeping options open, is what we will be referring to throughout this section.fn-39 This type of option value exist for nearly all moral views, and is very unlikely to be negative.fn-40 However, as we will discuss in this chapter, this value is rather small compared to other considerations.
Reducing the risk of human extinction only creates option value if future agents will make a better decision, by our (reflected) lights, about whether to colonize space than we could. If they will make worse decisions than us, we would rather decide ourselves.
In order for future agents to make better decisions than us and actually act on them, they need to surpass us in at least one of the following aspects:
Human values change. We are disgusted by many of our ancestors’ moral views, and they would find ours equally repugnant. We can even look back on our own moral views and disagree. There is no reason for these trends to stop exactly now: human morality will likely continue to change.
Yet at each stage in the change, we are likely to view our values as obviously correct. This encourages a greater degree of moral uncertainty than feels natural. We should expect that our moral views would change after idealized reflection (although this also depends on which meta-ethical theory is correct and how idealized reflection works).
We argued in part 1.2 that future agents’ preferences will in expectation have some overlap with our reflected preferences. Even if that overlap is not very high, a high degree of moral uncertainty would indicate that we would often prefer future agents’ preferences over our current, unreflected preferences. In a sizeable fraction of future scenarios, future agents with more time and better tools to reflect, can be expected to make better decisions than one could today.
We now understand the world better than our ancestors, and are able to think more clearly. If those trends continue, future agents may understand better what space colonization will be like, and so better understand how good it will be on a given set of values.
For example, future agents’ estimate of the EV of space colonization will benefit from
As long as there is some overlap between their preferences and one’s reflected preferences, this gives an additional reason to defer to future agents’ decisions (example see footnote).fn-43
We often know what’s right, but don’t follow through on it anyway. What is true for diets also applies here:
It seems likely that future agents would probably surpass our current level of empirical understanding, rationality, and coordination, and in a considerable fraction of possible futures they might also do better on values and non-selfishness. However, we should note that to actually not colonize space, they would have to surpass a certain threshold in all of these fields, which may be quite high. Thus, a little bit of progress doesn’t help - option value is only created in deferring the decision to future agents if they surpass this threshold.
For any future scenario to contain option value, the agents in that future need to surpass us in various ways, as outlined above. This has an implication that further diminishes the relevance of the option value argument. Future agents need to have relatively good values and be relatively non-selfishness to decide not to colonize space for moral reasons. But even if these agents colonized space, they would probably do it in a relatively good manner. Most expected future disvalue plausibly comes from futures controlled by indifferent or malicious agents (like misaligned AI). Such “bad” agents will make worse decisions about whether or not to colonize space than we, currently, could, because their preferences are very different from our (reflected) preferences. Potential space colonization by indifferent or malicious agents thus generates large amounts of expected future disvalue, which cannot be alleviated by option value. Option value doesn’t help in the cases where it is most needed (see footnote for an explanatory example)fn-45
If future agents are good enough, there is option value in deferring the decision whether to colonize space to them. In some not-too-small fraction of possible futures, agents will fulfill the criteria and thus option value adds positively to the EV of reducing extinction risk. However, the futures accounting for most expected future disvalue are likely controlled by indifferent or malicious agents. Such “bad” agents would likely make worse decisions than we could. A large amount of expected future disvalue is thus not amendable from alleviation through option value. Overall, we think the option value in reducing the risk of human extinction is probably fairly moderate, but there is a lot of uncertainty and contingency on one’s specific moral and empirical viewsfn-46. Modelling the considerations of this section showed that if the 90% confidence interval of value of the future was from -0.9 to 0.9 (arbitrary value units), option value was 0.07.
Up to now, we have tacitly assumed that the sign of EV of (post)-human space colonization determines whether extinction risk reduction is worthwhile. This only holds if without humanity, the EV of the future is roughly zero, because the (colonizable) universe is and will stay devoid of value or disvalue. We now consider two classes of scenarios in which this is not the case, with important implications especially for people who think that EV of (post-)human space colonization is likely negative.
If humanity goes extinct without colonizing space, some kind of other beings would likely survive on earthfn-47. These beings might evolve into a non-human technological civilization in the hundreds of millions of years left on earth and eventually colonize space. Similarly, extraterrestrials (that might already exist or come into existence in the future) might colonize (more of) our corner of the universe, if humanity does not.
In these cases, we must ask whether we prefer (post-)human space colonization over the alternatives. Whether alternative civilizations would be more or less compassionate or cooperative than humans, we can only guess. We may however assume that our reflected preferences depend on some aspects of being human, such as human culture or the biological structure of the human brainfn-48. Thus, our reflected preferences likely overlap more with a (post-)human civilization than alternative civilizations. As future agents will have powerful tools to shape the world according to their preferences, we should prefer (post-)human space colonization over space colonization by an alternative civilization.
To understand how we can factor this consideration into the overall EV of a future with (post-) human space colonization, consider the following example of Ana and Chris. Ana thinks the EV of (post-)human space colonization is negative. For her, the EV of potential alternative space colonization is thus even more negative. This should cause people who, like Ana, are pessimistic about the EV of (post-)human space colonization (and thus the value of reducing the risk of human extinction) to update towards reducing the risk of human extinction because the alternative is even worse (technical caveat in footnotefn-49).
Chris thinks that the EV of (post-)human space colonization is positive. For him, the EV of potential alternative space colonization could be positive or negative. For people like Chris, who are optimistic about the EV of (post-)human space colonization (and thus the value of reducing the risk of human extinction), the direction of update is thus less clear. They should update towards reducing the risk of human extinction if the potential alternative civilization is bad, or away from it if the potential alternative civilization is merely less good. Taken together, this consideration implies a stronger update for future pessimists like Ana than for future optimists like Chris. This becomes clearer in the mathematical derivationfn-50 or when considering an examplefn-51.
It remains to estimate how big the update should be. Based on our best guesses about the relevant parameters (Fermi-estimate see here), it seems like future pessimists should considerably shift their judgement of the EV of human extinction risk reduction into the less negative direction. Future optimists should moderately shift their judgement downwards. Therefore, if one was previously uncertain with roughly equal credence in future pessimism and future optimism, one’s estimate for the EV of human extinction risk reduction should increase.
We should note that this is a very broad consideration, with details contingent on the actual moral views people hold and specific empirical considerationsfn-52.
A specific case of alternative space colonization could arise if humanity gets extinguished by misaligned AGI. It seems likely that misaligned AI would colonize space. Space colonization by an AI might include (among other things of value/disvalue to us) the creation of many digital minds for instrumental purposes. If the AI is only driven by values orthogonal to ours, it would likely not care about the welfare of those digital minds. Whether we should expect space colonization by a human-made, misaligned AI to be morally worse than space colonization by future agents with (post-)human values has been discussed extensively elsewhere. Briefly, nearly all moral views would most likely rather have human value-inspired space colonization than space colonization by AI with arbitrary values, giving extra reason to work on AI alignment especially for future pessimists.
With more empirical knowledge and philosophical reflection, we may find that the universe is already filled with beings/things that we morally care about. Instead of just increasing the number of morally relevant things (i.e. earth originating sentient beings), future agents might then influence the states of morally relevant beings/things already existing in the universefn-53. This topic is highly speculative and we should stress that most of the EV probably comes from “unknown unknowns”, which humanity might discover during idealized reflection. Simply put, we might find some way in which future agents can make the existing world (a lot) better if they stick around. To illustrate this general concept, consider the following ideas.
We might find that we morally care about things other than sentient beings, which could be vastly abundant in the universe. For example, we may develop moral concern for fundamental physics, e.g. in the form of panpsychicism. Another possibility could arise if the solution to the simulation argument (Bostrom, 2003) is indeed that we live in a simulation, with most things of moral relevance positioned outside of our simulation but modifiable by us in yet unknown ways. It might also turn out that we can interact with other agents in the (potentially infinite) universe or multiverse by acausal trade or multiverse-wide cooperation, thereby influencing existing things of moral relevance (to us) in their part of the universe/multiverse. These specific ideas may look weird. However, given humanity’s history of realizing that we care about more/other things than previously thoughtfn-54, it should in principle seem likely that our reflected preferences include some yet unknown unknowns.
We argued in part 1.2 that future agents’ preferences will in expectation be parallel rather than anti-parallel to our reflected preferences. If the universe is already filled with things/beings of moral concern, we can thus assume that future agents will in expectation improve the state of these thingsfn-55. This creates additional reason to reduce the risk of human extinction: There might be a moral responsibility for humanity to stick around and “improve the universe”. This perspective is especially relevant for disvalue-focused views. From a (strongly) disvalue-focused view, increasing the numbers of conscious beings by space colonization is negative because it generates suffering and disvalue. It might seem that there is little to gain if space colonization goes well, but much to lose if it goes wrong. If, however, future agents could alleviate existing disvalue, then humanity’s survival (potentially including space colonization) has upsides that may well be larger than the expected downsides (Fermi-estimate see footnotefn-56).fn-57
If we had a button that reduces human extinction risk, and has no other effect, we would only need the considerations in parts 1 and 2 to know whether we should press it. In practice, efforts to reduce extinction risk often have other morally relevant consequences, which we examine below.
Global catastrophe here refers to a scenario of hundreds of millions of human deaths and resulting societal collapse. Many potential causes of human extinction, like a large scale epidemic, nuclear war, or runaway climate change, are far more likely to lead to a global catastrophe than to complete extinction. Thus, many efforts to reduce the risk of human extinction also reduce global catastrophic risk. In the following, we argue that this effect adds substantially to the EV of efforts to reduce extinction risk, even from the very-long term perspective of this article. This doesn’t hold for efforts to reduce risks that, like risks from misaligned AGI, are more likely to lead to complete extinction than to a global catastrophe.
Apart from being a dramatic event of immense magnitude for current generations, a global catastrophes could severely curb humanity’s long-term potential by destabilizing technological progress and derailing social progressfn-59.
Technological progress might be uncoordinated and incautious in a world that is politically destabilized by global catastrophe. For pivotal technologies such as AGI, development in an arms race scenario (e.g. driven by post-catastrophe resource scarcity or war) could lead to adverse outcomes we cannot correct afterwards.
Social progress might likewise divert towards opposing open society and general utilitarian-type values. Can we expect the “new” value system emerging after a global catastrophe to be robustly worse than our current value system? While this issue is debatedfn-60, Nick Beckstead gives a strand of arguments suggesting the “new” values would in expectation be worse. Compared to the rest of human history, we currently seem to be on a unusually promising trajectory of social progress. What exactly would happen if this period was interrupted by a global catastrophe is a difficult question, and any answer will involve many judgements calls about the contingency and convergence of human values. However, as we hardly understand the driving factors behind the current period of social progress, we cannot be confident it would recommence if interrupted by a global catastrophe. Thus, if one sees the current trajectory as broadly positive, one should expect this value to be partially lost if a global catastrophe occurs.
Taken together, reducing global catastrophic risk seems to be a valuable effect of efforts to reduce extinction risk. This aspect is fairly relevant even from a very-long term perspective because catastrophes are much more likely than extinction. A Fermi-Estimate suggests the long-term impact from the prevention of global catastrophes is about 50% of the impact from avoiding extinction events. The potential long-term consequences from a global catastrophe include worse values and an increase in the likelihood of misaligned AI scenarios. These consequences seem bad from most moral perspectives, including strongly disvalue-focused ones. Considering the effects on global catastrophic risk should suggest a significant update in the evaluation of the EV of efforts to reduce extinction risk towards more positive (or less negative) values.
The shared future of humanity is a (transgenerational) global public good (Bostrom, 2013), thus society needs to coordinate to preserve it, e.g. by providing funding and other incentives. Most extinction risk also arises from technologies that allow for one agent (intentionally or by mistake) to start a potential extinction event (e.g. release a harmful virus or start a nuclear war). Coordinated action and careful decisions are thus needed and indeed, the broadest efforts to reduce extinction risk directly promote global coordination, peace and stability. More focused efforts often promote “narrow cooperation” within a specific field (e.g. nuclear non-proliferation) or set up processes (e.g. pathogenic surveillance) that increase global stability by reducing perceived levels of threat from non-extinction events (e.g. bioterrorist attacks).
Taken together, efforts to reduce extinction risk also promote a more coordinated, peaceful and stable global society. Future agents in such a society will probably make wiser and more careful decisions, reducing the risk of unexpected negative trajectory changes in general. Safe development of AI will specifically depend on these factors. Therefore, efforts to reduce extinction risk may also steer the world away from some of the worst non-extinction outcomes, which likely involve war, violence and arms races.
Note that there may be a trade-off as most targeted efforts seem more neglected and therefore promising levers for extinction risk reduction. However, their effects on global coordination, peace and stability are less certain and likely smaller than the effects of broad efforts aimed directly at increasing these factors. Broad efforts to promote global coordination, peace and stability might be among the most promising approaches to robustly improve the future and reduce the risk of dystopian outcomes conditional on human survival.
So all things considered, what is the expected value of efforts to reduce the risk of human extinction? In the first part, we considered what might happen if human extinction is prevented for long enough that future agents, maybe our biological descendants, digital humans, or (misaligned) AGI created by humans, colonize space. The EV of (post-)human space colonization is probably positive from many welfarist perspectives, but very uncertain. We also examined the ‘option value argument’, according to which we should try to avoid extinction and defer the decision to colonize space (or not) to wiser future agents. We concluded that option value, while mostly positive, is small and the option value argument hardly conclusive.
In part 2, we explored what the future universe might look like if humans do go extinct. Vast amounts of value or disvalue might (come to) exist in those scenarios as well. Some of this (dis-)value could be influenced by future agents if they survive. This insight has little impact for people who were optimistic about the future anyway, but shifts the EV of reducing extinction risk upwards for people who were previously pessimistic about the future. In part 3, we extended our considerations to additional effects of many efforts to reduce extinction risk, namely reducing the risk of “mere” global catastrophes and increasing global cooperation and stability. These effects generate considerable additional positive long-term impact. This is because global catastrophes would likely change the direction of technological and social progress in a bad way, while global cooperation and stability are prerequisites for a positive long-term trajectory.
Some aspects of moral views make the EV of reducing extinction risk looks less positive than suggested above. We will consider three such aspects:
To generate the (hypothetical) moral view that is most sceptical about reducing extinction risk, we unite all of the three aspects above. We assume a strongly disvalue-focused, very stable and unusual moral view. Even from this perspective (in rough order of descending relevance):
From this maximally sceptical view, targeted approaches to reduce the risk of human extinction likely seem somewhat unexciting or neutral, with high uncertainty (see footnotefn-62 for how advocates of strongly disvalue-focused views see the EV of efforts to reduce extinction risk). Reducing the risk of extinction by misaligned AI probably seems positive because misaligned AI would also colonize space (see part 2.1).
From views that value the creation of happy beings or creation of value more broadly, have considerable moral uncertainty, and believe future reflected and altruistic agents could make good decisions, the EV of efforts to reduce extinction risk is likely positive and extremely high.
In aggregation, efforts to reduce the risk of human extinction seem in expectation robustly positive from many consequentialist perspectives.
Effective altruists whose primary moral concern is making sure the future plays out well will, in practice, need to allocate their resources between different possible efforts. Some of these efforts are optimized to reduce extinction risk (e.g. promoting biosecurity), others are optimized to improve the future conditional on human survival while also reducing extinction risk (e.g. promoting global coordination or otherwise preventing negative trajectory changes) and some are optimized to improve the future without making extinction risk reduction a primary goal (e.g. promoting moral circle expansion or "worst-case" AI safety research).
We have argued above that the EV of efforts to reduce extinction risk is positive, but is it large enough to warrant investment of marginal resources? A thorough answer to this question requires detailed examination of the specific efforts in question and goes beyond the scope of this article. We are thus in no position to provide a definitive answer for the community. We will, however, present two arguments that favor including efforts to reduce extinction risk as a key part in the long-termist EA portfolio. Efforts to reduce the risks of human extinction are time-sensitive and seem very leveraged. We know of specific risks this century, we have reasonably good ideas for ways to reduce them, and if we actually avert an extinction event, this has robust impact for millions of years (at least in expectation) to come. As a very broad generalization, many efforts optimized to otherwise improve the future - such as improving today’s values in the hope that they will propagate to future generations - are less time-sensitive or leveraged. In short, it seems easier to prevent an event from happening in this century than to otherwise robustly influence the future millions of years down the line.
Key caveats to this argument include that it is not clear how big differences in time-sensitivity and leverage arefn-63 and that we may still discover highly leveraged ways to “otherwise improve the future”. Therefore, it seems that the EA long-termist portfolio should contain all of the efforts described above, allowing each member of the community to contribute to their comparative advantage. For those holding very disvalue-focused moral views, the more attractive efforts would plausibly be those optimized to improve the future without making extinction risk reduction a primary goal.
We are grateful to Brian Tomasik, Max Dalton, Lukas Gloor, Gregory Lewis, Tyler John, Thomas Sittler, Alex Norman, William MacAskill and Fabienne Sandkühler for helpful comments on the manuscript. Additionally, we thank Max Daniel, Sören Mindermann, Carl Shulman and Sebastian Sudergaard Schmidt for discussions that helped inform our views on the matter.
Jan conceived the article and the arguments presented in it. Friederike and Jan contributed to structuring the content and writing.
In this appendix, we use the approach of part 1.1 and apply it to a situation in which humanity stays Earth-bound. It is recommended to first read part 1.1 before reading this appendix.
We think that scenarios in which humanity stays Earth-bound are of very limited relevance for the EV of the future for two reasons:
If we assume humanity will stay Earth-bound, it seems that most welfarist views would probably favour reducing extinction risk. If one thinks humans are much more important than animals, it is obvious (unless one combined that view with suffering-focused ethics, such as antinatalism). If one also cares about animals, then very plausibly humanity's impact on wild animals is more relevant than humanity’s impact on farmed animals, because of the enormous numbers of the former (and especially since it seems plausible that factory farming will not continue indefinitely). So far, humanity’s main effect on wild animals has been a permanent decrease of population size (through habitat destruction), which is expected to continue as human population size grows. Compared to that, direct influence on wild animal well-being currently is unclear and probably small (though it is less clear for aquatic life):
If one thinks that wild animals are on net suffering, future population size reduction seems beneficial. If one thinks that wild animal welfare is net positive, then habitat reduction would be bad. However, there is still unarguably a lot of suffering in nature. Humanity might eventually - if we have much more knowledge and better tools, that allow us to do so at limited costs to ourselves - improve wild animals’ lives (like we already do with e.g. vaccinations), so the prospect of that might offset some of the negative value of current habitat reduction. Obviously, habitat destruction is negative from a conservationist/environmentalist perspective.
Altruism in humans likely evolved as a “shortcut” solution to coordination problems. It was often impossible to forecast how much an altruistic act would help spread your own genes, but it often would (especially in small tribes, where all members were closely related). Thus, humans for whom altruism just felt good had a selective advantage.
As agents become more rational and long-term planning, a tendency to help for purely selfless reasons seems less adaptive. Agents can deliberately cooperate for strategic reasons whenever necessary and for the exactly optimal amount to optimize for their own reproductive fitness. One might fear that in the long run, only preferences for increasing one’s own power and influence (and that of one’s descendants) might remain under Darwinian selection.
But this is not necessarily the case, for two reasons:
Darwinian processes will select for patience, not “selfishness” (Paul Christiano):
Agents reasoning from a long-term perspective, and the better the tools to preserve values and influence into the future, may reduce the need for altruistic preferences, but also strongly reduce selection pressure for selfishness. In contrast to short-term planning (overly) altruistic agents, long-term planning agents that want to create value would realize that amassing power is an instrumental goal for that, and will try to survive, get resources for instrumental reasons, and coordinate with others against unchecked expansion of selfish agents. Thus, future evolution might select not for selfishness, but for patience or how strongly an agent cares about the long-term. Such long-term preferences should be expected to be more altruistic.
Carl Shulman additionally makes the point that in a space colonization scenario, agents that want to create value would only be very slightly disadvantaged in direct competition with agents that only care about expanding.
Brian Tomasik thinks Christiano’s argument is valid and altruism might not be driven to zero in the future, but is doubtful that very-long term altruist will have strategic advantages over medium-term corporations and governments and cautions against putting too much weight on theoretical arguments: “Human(e) values have only a mild degree of control in the present. So it would be surprising if such values had significantly more control in the far future.”
Preferences might not even be subject to Darwinian processes indefinitely:
If the losses from evolutionary pressure indeed loom large, it seems quite likely that future generations would coordinate against it, e.g. by forming a singleton (Bostrom, 2006) (which broadly encompasses many forms of global coordination or value/goal-preservation). (Of course, there are also future scenarios that would strip away all other-regarding preferences, e.g. in Malthusian scenarios.)
In conclusion, we will end up somewhere between no other-regarding preferences and even more than today, with a considerable probability of future agents having a considerable fraction of other-regarding preferences.
Most humans (past and present) intend to do what we now consider good (be loving, friendly, altruistic) more than they intend to harm (be sadistic, hateful, seek revenge). Positivefn-64 other-regarding preferences might be more universal: most people would, all else equal, prefer all human or animals to be happy, while fewer people would have such a general preference for suffering. This relative overhang of positive preferences in human society is evident from rules that ban hurting (some) others, but not helping others. These rules will (if they persist) also shape the future, as they increase the costs of doing harm.fn-65
Throughout human history, there has been a trend away from cruelty and violence.fn-66 Although humans cause a lot of suffering in the world today, this is mostly because people are indifferent or “lazy”, rather than evil. All in all, it seems fair to say that the significant majority of human other-regarding preferences is positive, and that most people would, all else equal, prefer more happiness and less suffering. However, we admit this is hard to quantify.fn-67
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Simply put: two beings experiencing positive (or negative) welfare are morally twice as good (or bad) as one being experiencing the same welfare↩
Some considerations that might reduce our certainty that, even given the moral perspective of this article, most expected value or disvalue comes from space colonization:
In this article, the term ‘(post-)human space colonization’ is meant to include any form of space colonization that originates from a human civilization, including cases in which (biological) humans or human values don’t play a role (e.g. because humanity lost control over artificial superintelligence, which then colonizes space).↩
… assuming that without (post-)human space colonization, the universe is and stays devoid of value or disvalue, as explained in “Outline of the article”↩
We here assume that humanity does not change substantially, excluding e.g. digital sentience from our considerations. This may be overly simplistic, as interstellar travel seems so difficult that a space-faring civilization will likely be extremely different from us today.↩
Around 80 billion farmed fish, which live around one year, are raised and killed per year.↩
All estimates from Brian Tomasik↩
There are convincing anecdotes and examples for an expanding moral circle from family to nation to all humans: The abolishment of slavery; human rights; reduction in discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race. However, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hard evidence. Gwern lists a few examples of a narrowing moral circle (such as infanticide, torture, other examples being less convincing).↩
There are also contrary trends. E.g. in Germany, meat consumption per head has been decreasing since 2011, from 62.8 kg in 2011 to 59.2 kg in 2015. In the US, it has been stagnant for 10 years.↩
One could claim that this just shows that people are afraid of dying or don’t commit suicide for other reasons, but people that suffer from depression have lifetime suicide rates of 2-15%, 10-25 times higher than general population. This at least indicates that suicide rates increase if quality of life decreases.↩
Reported well-being: People on average seem to report being content with their lives. This is only moderate evidence for their lives being positive from a welfarist view because people don’t generally think in welfarist terms when evaluating their lives and there might be optimism bias in reporting.
Suicide rates: There are many reasons why people with lives not worth living might refrain from suicide, for example:
The book Compassion by the pound, for example, rates the welfare of caged laying hens and pigs as negative, but beef cattle, dairy cows, free range laying hens and broiler chickens (market animals) as positive. Other experts disagree, especially on broiler chickens having lives worth living.↩
Ability to express natural behaviour, such as sex, eating, social behavior, etc.↩
Often painful deaths, disease, parasitism, predation, starvation, etc. In general, there is danger of anthropomorphism. Of course I would be cold in Antarctica, but a polar bear wouldn’t.↩
Specifically: moral weight for insects, probability that humanity will eventually improve wild animal welfare, future population size multiplier (insect relative to humans) and human and insect welfare.↩
If anything, attitudes towards animals have arguably become more empathetic. The majority of people around the globe express concern for farm animal well-being. (However, there is limited data, several confounders, and results from indirect questioning indicate that the actual concern for farmed animals might be much lower). See e.g.:
But also: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-009-9492-z↩
Future technology, in combination with unchecked evolutionary pressure, might also lead to futures that contain very little of what we would value upon reflection (Bostrom, 2004).↩
Self-regarding preferences are preferences that depend on the expected effect of the preferred state of affairs on the agent. These are not synonymous with purely “selfish preferences”. Acting according to self-regarding preferences can lead to acts that benefit others, such as in trade.
Other-regarding preferences are preferences that don’t depend on the expected effect of the preferred state of affairs on the agent. Other-regarding preferences can lead to acts that also benefit the actor. E.g. parents are happy if they know their children are happy. However, the parents would also want their children to be happy if they wouldn’t come to know about it. As defined here, other-regarding preferences are not necessarily positive for others. They can be negative (e.g. sadistic/hateful preferences) or neutral (e.g. aesthetic preferences).
Example of two parties at war:
Individual humans as well as human society have become more intelligent over time. See: history of education, scientific revolution, Flynn effect, information technology. Genetic engineering or artificial intelligence may further increase our individual and collective cognition.↩
Even if FAP and RP don’t have a lot of overlap, there might be additional reasons to defer to the values of future generations. Paul Christiano advocates one should sympathize with future agents’ values, if they are reflected, for strategic cooperative reasons, and for a willingness to discard idiosyncratic judgements.↩
Even if earth-originating AI is initially controlled, this might not guarantee control over the future: Goal preservation might be costly, if there are trade-offs between learning and goal preservation during self-improvement, especially in multipolar scenarios.↩
How meaningful moral reflection is, and whether we should expect human values to converge upon reflection, also depends on unsolved questions in meta-ethics.↩
Of course, orthogonal other-regarding preferences can sometimes still lead to anti-parallel actions. Take as an example the debate of conservationism vs. wild animal suffering. Both parties have other-regarding preferences over wild animals. Conservationist don’t have a preferences for wild animal suffering, just for conserving eco-systems. Wild animal suffering advocates don’t have a preference against conserving eco-systems (per se), just against wild animal suffering. In practice, these orthogonal views likely recommend different actions regarding habitat destruction. However, if there will be future agents with preferences on both sides, then there is wildly more room for gains through trade and compromise (such as the implementation of David Pearce’s Hedonistic imperative) in cases like this than if other-regarding preferences were actually anti-parallel. Still, as I also remark in the conclusion, people who think their reflected preferences will be sufficiently unusual to have only a small overlap with other-regarding preferences of other humans, even if they are reflected, will find the whole part 1.2 less compelling for that reason.↩
Maybe we would, after idealized reflection, include a certain class of beings into our other-regarding preferences, and we would want them to be able to experience, say, freedom. It seem quite likely that future agents won’t care about these being at all. However, it seems very unlikely that they would have a particular other-regarding preference for such being to be un-free.
Or consider the paperclip-maximiser, a canonical example for misaligned AI and thus a example for FAP certainly not being parallel to RP. Still, a paperclip-maximizer does not have a particular aversion against flourishing life, just as we don’t have a particular aversion against paperclips.↩
Examples of negative “side-effects” as defined here:
Of course there are also positive side-effects, cooperative and accidental: E.g.
Additionally, one might object that FAP may not be the driving force shaping the future. Today, it seems that major decision are mediated by a complex system of economical and political structures that often leads to outcomes that don’t align with the preferences of individual humans and that overweights the interests of the economically and politically powerful. On that view, we might expect the influence of human(e) values over the world to remain small. We think that future agents will probably have better tools to actually shape the world according to their preferences, which includes better tools for mediating disagreement and reaching meaningful compromise. But insofar as the argument in this footnote applies, it gives an additional reason to expect orthogonal actions, even if FAP aren’t orthogonal.↩
Note that cooperation does not require caring about the partner one cooperates with. Even two agents that don’t care about each other at all may cooperate instead of waging war for the resources the other party holds, if they have good tools/institutions to arrange compromise, because the cost of warfare is high.↩
Evolutionary reasons for the asymmetry between biological pain and pleasure that would not necessarily remain in designed digital sentience (ideas owed to Carl Shulman):
Animals for which one pleasant stimulus stayed pleasant indefinitely (e.g. animal that just continued eating) had less reproductive success. Pain channels need less protection against hacking, because pain channel hacking...:
This might be part of the reason why pain seems much easier to instantiate on demand than happiness.↩
Even if future powerful agents have some concern for the welfare of sentient tools, sentient tools’ welfare might still be net negative, if there are reasons that make positive-welfare tools much more expensive than negative welfare tools (e.g. if suffering is very important for task performance). But even if maximal efficiency and welfare of tools are not completely correlated, we think that most suffering can be avoided while still keeping most productivity, so that a little concern for sentient tools could thus go a long way.↩
Strategic acts in scenarios with little cooperation could motivate the creation of disvalue-optimized sentience, especially in multipolar scenarios that contain both altruistic and indifferent agents (blackmailing). However, because uncooperative acts are bad for everyone, these scenarios in expectation seem to involve little resources. On the positive side, there can also be gains from trade between altruistic and indifferent agents.↩
Sentient tools are optimized for performance in the task they are created for. Per resource-unit, future agents would create: a number of minds as is most efficient, with hedonic experience as is most efficient, optimized for task.
(Dis)value-optimized sentience might be directly optimized for extent of consciousness or intensity of experience (if that is actually what future generations value altruistically). Per resource-unit, future agents would create: as many minds as is optimal for (dis)value, with as positive/negative as possible hedonic experience, optimized for conscious states.
Such sentience might be orders of magnitude more efficient in creating conscious experience than sentience not optimized for it. E.g. in humans, only a tiny fraction of energy is used for peak conscious experience: about 20% of energy is used for the brain, only a fraction of that is used for conscious experience, only a fraction of which are “peak” experiences.↩
The driving force behind this judgement is not necessarily the belief that most futures will be good. Rather, it is the belief that the ‘rather good’ futures will contain more net value than the ‘rather bad’ futures will contain net disvalue.
As also noted in the discussion at the end of the article, part 1 is less relevant for people who have other-regarding preferences very different from other people, and who believe their RP to be very different from the RP of the rest of humanity.↩
Option value is not a separate kind of value, and it would be already integrated in the perfect EV calculation. However, it is quite easy to overlook, and somewhat important in this context, so it is discussed separately here.↩
In a general sense, ‘option value’ includes the value of any change of strategy, for the better or worse, that future agents might take upon learning more. However, the general fact that agents can learn more and adapt their strategy is not surprising and was already factored into considerations 1, 2 and 4.↩
In the more general definition, option value is not always positive. In general, giving future agents the option to choose between different strategies can be bad, if the values of future agents are bad or their epistemics are worse. In this section, ‘option value’ only refers to the option of future agents not to colonize space, if they find colonizing space would be bad from an altruistic perspective.It seems very unlikely that, if future agents refrain from space colonization for altruistic reasons at all, they would do so exactly in those cases in which we (current generation) would have judge space colonization as positive (according to our reflected preferences). So this kind of option value is very unlikely to be negative.↩
Although empirical insights about the universe play a role in both option value and part 2.2, these two considerations are different:
Individual humans as well as human society have become more intelligent over time. See: history of education, scientific revolution, Flynn effect, information technology. Genetic engineering or artificial intelligence may further increase our individual and collective cognition.↩
For example, if we care only about maximizing X, but future agents will care about maximizing X, Y and Z to equal parts, letting them decide whether or not to colonize space might still lead to more X than if we decided, because they have vastly more knowledge about the universe and are generally much more capable of making rational decisions.↩
Even if future agents can make better decisions regarding our other-regarding preferences than we (currently) could, future agents also need to be non-selfish enough to act accordingly - their other-regarding preferences need to constitute a sufficiently large fraction of their overall preferences.↩
Say we are uncertain about the value in the future in two ways:
The following chart shows expected net value of space colonization without considering option value (again: made-up numbers):
| - | Indifferent actors | Good actors | |---------|---|---|---|---| | Disvalue-focused view | -100 | -10 | | 'Balanced view' | -5 | 100 |
Now with option value, only the good actors would limit the harm if the disvalue-focused view was indeed our (and thus, their) preferred moral view after idealized reflection:
| - | Indifferent actors | Good actors | |---------|---|---|---|---| | Disvalue-focused view | -100 | 0 | | 'Balanced view' | -5 | 100 |↩
There is more option value, if:
It seems likely that some life-forms would survive, except if human extinction is caused by some cosmic catastrophes (not a focus area for effective altruists, because unlikely and intractable) or by specific forms of nano-technology or by misaligned AI.↩
The extent to which it is true depends on the reflection process one chooses. Several people who read an early draft of this article commented that they would imagine their reflected preferences to be independent of human-specific factors.↩
The argument in the main text assumed that the alternative space colonization contains a comparable amount of things that we find morally relevant as the (post-)human colonization. But in many cases, the EV of an alternative space colonization would actually be (near) neutral, because the alternative civilization’s preferences would be orthogonal to ours. Our values would just be so different from the AI’s or extraterrestrial values that space colonization by these agents might often look neutral to us. The argument in the main text still applies, but only for those alternative space colonizations that contain comparable absolute amounts of value and disvalue.
However, a very similar argument applies even for alternative colonizations that contain less absolute amount of things we morally care about. The value of alternative space colonization would be shifted more towards zero, but future pessimists would in expectation always find alternative space colonization a worse outcome than no space colonization. From the future pessimistic perspective, human extinction leads to a bad outcome (alternative colonization), and not a neutral one (no space colonization). Future pessimists should thus update towards extinction risk reduction being less negative. Future optimists might find the alternative space colonization better or worse than no colonization.
The mathematical derivation in the next footnote takes this caveat into account.↩
Assumption: This derivation makes the assumption that people who think the EV of human space colonization is negative and those who think it is positive would still rank a set of potential future scenarios in the same order when evaluating them normatively. This seems plausible, but may not be the case.
Let’s simplify the value of human extinction risk reduction to:
EV(reduction of human extinction risk) = EV(human space colonization) - EV(human extinction)
(This simplification is very uncharitable towards extinction risk reduction, even if only considering the long-term effects, see parts 2 and 3 of this article).
Assuming that no non-human animal or extraterrestrial civilization would emerge in case of human extinction, then EV(human extinction)=0, and so future pessimists judge:
EV(reduction of human extinction risk) = EV(human space colonization) - EV(human extinction)= EV(human space colonization) < 0
And future optimists believe:
EV(reduction of human extinction risk) = EV(human space colonization) - EV(human extinction) = EV(human space colonization) > 0
Let’s say, if humanity goes extinct, there will be non-human space colonization eventually with the probability p. (p can be down-weighted in a way to account for the fact that later space colonization probably means less final area colonized). This means that:
EV(human extinction) = p * EV(non-human space colonization)
Let’s define the amount of value and disvalue created by human space colonization as Vh and Dh, and the amount value and disvalue created by the non-human civilization as Vnh and Dnh.
We can expect two relations:
(i) Vnh/Dnh = (Vh/Dh) * r, with 0 <= r <= 1
(ii) (Vnh + Dnh) = (Vh + Dh) * a, with 0 <= a <= 1
Finally, the expected value of non-human space colonization can be expressed as (by definition):
(iii) EV(non-human space colonization) = Vnh - Dnh
Using (i), (ii), and (iii) we get:
EV(human extinction) =
EV(non-human space colonization) * Probability(non-human space colonization) =
(Vnh - Dnh) * p =
(a * (Vh + Dh) / ((Vh/Dh) * r + 1)) * (r * Vh/Dh - 1) * p
The first term (in the outer pair of parentheses) is always positive. The sign of the second term (in bold) can change depending on whether we were previously optimistic or pessimistic about the future.
If we were previously pessimistic about the future, we thought:
Vh - Dh < 0 -> Vh/Dh < 1
The second term is negative, EV of human extinction is negative. Compared to the “naive” pessimistic view (assuming EV(human extinction) = 0), pessimists should update their view into the direction of EV(reducing human extinction risk) being less negative.
If we were previously optimistic about the future, we thought:
Vh - Dh > 0 -> Vh/Dh > 1
Now the second term can be negative, neutral, or positive. Compared to the naive view, future optimists should sometimes be more enthusiastic (if (Vnh/Dnh = r * Vh/Dh < 1) and sometimes be less enthusiastic (if Vnh/Dnh = r * Vh/Dh > 1) about extinction risk reduction than they previously were.↩
Let’s define future pessimists as people who judge the expected value of (post-)human space colonization as negative; future optimists analogously. Now consider the example of a non-human civilization significantly worse than human civilization (by our lights), such that future optimists would find it normatively neutral, and future pessimists find it significantly more negative than human civilization. Then future optimists would not update their judgement (compared to before considering the possibility of a non-human animal spacefaring civilization), but pessimists would update significantly into the direction of human extinction risk reduction being positive.↩
E.g. one might think that humanity might be comparatively bad at coordination (compared to e.g. intelligent ants), and so relatively likely to create uncontrolled AI wrong, which might be an exceptionally bad outcome, maybe even worse than an intelligent ant civilization. However, considerations like this seem to require highly specific judgements and are likely not very robust.↩
Section 4.2 is not dependent on a welfarist or even consequentialist view. More generally, it applies to any kind of empirical or moral insight that we might have, which would make us realize that other things than we previously thought are of great moral value or disvalue.↩
Assuming that the side-effects of resources spent for self-regarding preferences of future agents are neutral/symmetric with regards to the beings/things out there (which seems to be a reasonable assumption).↩
Fermi-estimate (wild guesses, again):
Thus, the expected reduction of disvalue through (post-)humanity is 2 times greater than expected creation of disvalue. This is, however, an upper bound. The calculation assumed that the universe contains enough disvalue that future agents could actually spend 25% altruistic resources on alleviating it, before having alleviated it all. In some cases, the universe might not contain that much disvalue, so some resources would go into the creation of value again.↩
Analogous to part 1.2, this part 2.2 is less relevant for people who believe that some of their reflected other-regarding preferences will be so unusual that they will be anti-parallel to most of humanity’s reflected other-regarding preferences. Such a view is e.g. defended by Brian Tomasik in the context of suffering in fundamental physics. Tomasik argues that, even if he (after idealized reflection) and future generation both came around to care for sentience in fundamental physics, and even if future generations were to influence fundamental physics for altruistic reasons, they would still be more likely to do it in a way that increases the vivacity of physics, which Tomasik (after idealized reflection) would oppose.↩
This section draws heavily on Nick Beckstead’s thoughts.↩
Global catastrophes that do not directly cause human extinction may initiate developments that lead to extinction later on. For the purposes of this article, these cases are not different from direct extinction, and are omitted here.↩
E.g. Paul Christiano: “So if modern civilization is destroyed and eventually successfully rebuilt, I think we should treat that as recovering most of Earth’s altruistic potential (though I would certainly hate for it to happen).”
In his article, Christiano outlines several empirical and moral judgement calls that lead him to his conclusion, such as:
It is of course a question whether one should stick with one’s own preferences, if the majority of reflected and altruistic agents have opposite preferences. According to some empirical and meta-ethical assumptions, one should.↩
Different advocates of strong suffering-focused views come to different judgements on the topic. They all seem to agree that, from a purely suffering-focused perspective, it is not clear whether efforts to reduce the risk of human extinction are positive or negative:
Lukas Gloor: "it tentatively seems to me that the effect of making cosmic stakes (and therefore downside risks) more likely is not sufficiently balanced by positive effects on stability, arms race prevention and civilizational values (factors which would make downside risks less likely). However, this is hard to assess and may change depending on novel insights.” …
“We have seen that efforts to reduce extinction risk (exception: AI alignment) are unpromising interventions for downside-focused value systems, and some of the interventions available in that space (especially if they do not simultaneously also improve the quality of the future) may even be negative when evaluated purely from this perspective.”
David Pearce: “Should existential risk reduction be the primary goal of: a) negative utilitarians? b) classical hedonistic utilitarians? c) preference utilitarians? All, or none, of the above? The answer is far from obvious. For example, one might naively suppose that a negative utilitarian would welcome human extinction. But only (trans)humans - or our potential superintelligent successors - are technically capable of phasing out the cruelties of the rest of the living world on Earth. And only (trans)humans - or rather our potential superintelligent successors - are technically capable of assuming stewardship of our entire Hubble volume.” …
“In practice, I don't think it's ethically fruitful to contemplate destroying human civilisation, whether by thermonuclear Doomsday devices or utilitronium shockwaves. Until we understand the upper bounds of intelligent agency, the ultimate sphere of responsibility of posthuman superintelligence is unknown. Quite possibly, this ultimate sphere of responsibility will entail stewardship of our entire Hubble volume across multiple quasi-classical Everett branches, maybe extending even into what we naively call the past [...]. In short, we need to create full-spectrum superintelligence.”
Brian Tomasik: “I'm now less hopeful that catastrophic-risk reduction is plausibly good for pure negative utilitarians. The main reason is that some catastrophic risk, such as from malicious biotech, do seem to pose nontrivial risk of causing complete extinction relative to their probability of merely causing mayhem and conflict. So I now don't support efforts to reduce non-AGI "existential risks". [...] Regardless, negative utilitarians should just focus their sights on more clearly beneficial suffering-reduction projects”↩
For example, interventions that aim at improving humanity’s values/increasing the circle of empathy might be highly leveraged and time-sensitive, if humanity achieves goal conservation soon, or values are otherwise sticky.↩
“Positive”/”negative” as defined from a welfarist perspective.↩
Societies may increase the costs, and thereby reducing the frequency, of acts following from negative other-regarding preferences, as long as negative other-regarding preferences are a minority. E.g. if 5% of a society have a other-regarding preference for inflicting suffering on a certain group (of powerless beings), but 95% have a preference against it, in many societal forms less than 5% of people will actually inflict suffering on this group of powerless beings, because there will be laws against it, ...↩
This fact could be interpreted either as human nature that we will revert to, or as a trend of moral progress. The latter seems more likely to us.↩
Another possible operationalization of the ratio between positive and negative other-regarding preferences: How much money is spent on pursuing positive and negative other-regarding preferences?