Vulnerable World / considering existential trajectories

I found myself listening to the Sam Harris podcast over the weekend. To the most recent episode at the time: 151 “Will we destroy the future?” an interview with Nick Bostrom.

Quoting directly:

In this episode of the Making Sense podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Nick Bostrom about the problem of existential risk. They discuss public goods, moral illusions, the asymmetry between happiness and suffering, utilitarianism, “the vulnerable world hypothesis,” the history of nuclear deterrence, the possible need for “turnkey totalitarianism,” whether we’re living in a computer simulation, the Doomsday Argument, the implications of extraterrestrial life, and other topics. 

Nick Bostrom is a Swedish-born philosopher with a background in theoretical physics, computational neuroscience, logic, and artificial intelligence. He is Professor at Oxford University, where he leads the Future of Humanity Institute as its founding director. He is the author of some 200 publications, including Anthropic Bias, Global Catastrophic Risks, Human Enhancement, and Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, a New York Times bestseller”

The part that caught my attention was the discussion on Bostrom’s recent working paper – “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis” in which Bostrom asks – “is there a black ball in the Urn of possible inventions?”. Using the metaphor of an urn; human creativity – new ideas, technologies, inventions etc, are drawn from the Urn in the form of balls. Bostrom categorises these as 3 colours of balls / outcomes. White balls represent ideas which have been overwhelmingly beneficial. Grey balls – offer ‘mixed blessings’ and a black ball – represents an invention / technology that necessarily will go on to annihilate the society that uncovers it.

Bostrum’s paper explores what a technological black ball might look like starting from the example of nuclear weapons. Those detonated in anger have yet to destroy civilisation on the whole. What would be a game changer is “easy nukes”  – made with readily accessible materials. He points out that it is “lucky that making nukes turned out to be hard“.

The podcast conversation peaked my curiosity. Thinking back to the ‘mixed blessings’ of Green Revolution of the 50’s and 60’s, I want to take time to explore – do some of these new agri-technologies / agri-landscapes pose a risk to the future? Could some crop modification or pesticide destroy the functioning of our ecosystems. I think about the die-outs of pollinating insects in particular bees. I think also about the prospect of intensifying the geography of food production around the locus of cities and that this could be enabling for rewilding / ecologically restorative planning.

Perhaps I can consider this for inclusion in my growing list of “great questions”… what are the prospective mixed blessings? Are we creating any technologies that we should leave in the box? What risks does this pose for […]?

I also think about the moral dilemmas of farming. It’s the bees again… in hydroponic farms I’ve found it common practice to buy bees for pollination “by the box” – a technique in which as far as I could tell, the colony is destined to die – the activities of the bees futile in terms of securing their own future.

And reminds me of a study suggesting imported pollinating bees were found to carry diseases that could spread to honey bees (in as many as 77% of imports) in a study by Leeds University from 2013.

Perhaps this is a useful way to view scenarios. I feel like I would like at some point to sit and map this out and I’m worried that creative intention will pass me by. Baby being due in 3 weeks and renovations happening around me make it hard to find that headspace – and I’m not certain of when it will re-occur. That is a scarcity mindset is it not?!

Oh and on the subject of existential crisis, try having a baby. That’ll do it…



The Vulnerable World Hypothesis 1 (2018) Nick Bostrom Future of Humanity Institute University of Oxford [Working Paper, v. 3.22] []