End of the Future of Humanity

Biopolitical Times
The Futire of Humanity logo, crossed out

Not the species, certainly, but the Institute of that name, which was founded by transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2005 as a research group at Oxford University. According to a recently posted Final Report, its goal was “to pursue the big questions in a transdisciplinary way” by pulling together “researchers from disciplines such as philosophy, computer science, mathematics, and economics.” This evolved before long into the study and promotion of  “effective altruism” and “longtermism” as well as human genetic enhancement and transhumanism: an interlocking bouquet of pernicious ideologies, especially when combined with AI.

The Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) remained Bostrom’s base, and he remained its leader, until the University closed it last week. The brief official announcement suggested rather vaguely that other departments and organizations would continue to pursue the “research in the fields where FHI was active.” It does not, however, seem much of a stretch to think that the catastrophic disgrace of cryptocurrency highroller Sam Bankman-Fried, a notorious supporter of effective altruism – aka “earn to give” – might have affected the University’s attitude. 

The Guardian obituary provides a useful supplement, in that it digs up some of the dirt surrounding FHI and its key personnel.

CGS has criticized Bostrom since at least 2006 for his support of genetic enhancement, transhumanism, and related noxious fantasies. Indeed, we published a post in 2007 ridiculing his statement: 

“My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that, is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”

That was early on, but it presaged the Institute’s later focus on issues raised by artificial intelligence. The Report notes that in about 2010 “AI safety and governance became one of the signature topics for FHI research.” That also led to a significant increase in funding and a much higher profile; Bostrom and Max Tegmark were invited to speak at the United Nations in 2015. 

Bostrom caught an enormous amount of criticism last year, quite rightly, when racist posts he had written on the mid-90s Extropian mailing list were revealed. He tried to slide away by claiming to having included the sentence “I hate those bloody [n-word redacted]” as a demonstration of what he did not believe. What he did (and apparently does) believe, however, is that “Blacks are more stupid than whites.” In the mid-90s, he called that “speaking with the provocativeness of unabashed objectivity.” Anders Sandberg, a colleague at FHI, tried to defend Bostrom by claiming that “levels of offensiveness change as cultural attitudes change.” That won’t wash either.

As Linsey McGoey wrote in Jacobin, in part of a long, careful and solid debunking:

Even if we grant this absurd claim, the main problem with Bostrom’s email is not his writing style but the worldview underlying it. This is a worldview that draws spurious connections between IQ and intelligence to back up racist assumptions about the world.

Oxford University seems to be trying to slide away from two decades of association with this kind of thinking. Well, more like two centuries (millennia?) actually but that’s another story. The Future of Humanity Institute is no more. Ironically, that is good news for the future of humanity.