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Nick Bostrom — Life and Meaning in a Solved World

Nick Bostrom’s previous book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, changed the global conversation on AI and became a New York Times bestseller. It focused on what might happen if AI development goes wrong. But what if things go right? Suppose that we develop superintelligence safely, govern it well, and make good use of the cornucopian wealth and near magical technological powers that this technology can unlock. If this transition to the machine intelligence era goes well, human labor becomes obsolete. We would thus enter a condition of “post-instrumentality” in which our efforts are not needed for any practical purpose. Furthermore, at technological maturity, human nature becomes entirely malleable. Here we confront a challenge that is not technological but philosophical and spiritual. In such a solved world, what is the point of human existence? What gives meaning to life? What do we do all day?

Bostrom’s new book, Deep Utopia, shines new light on these old questions and gives us glimpses of a different kind of existence, which might be ours in the future.

Nick Bostrom is a Professor at Oxford University, where he is the founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute. Bostrom is the world’s most cited philosopher aged 50 or under. He is the author of more than 200 publications, including Anthropic Bias (2002), Global Catastrophic Risks (2008), Human Enhancement (2009), and Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014), a New York Times bestseller which sparked a global conversation about the future of AI. His work has pioneered many of the ideas that frame current thinking about humanity’s future (such as the concept of an existential risk, the simulation argument, the vulnerable world hypothesis, the unilateralist’s curse, etc.), while some of his recent work concerns the moral status of digital minds. His writings have been translated into more than 30 languages; he is a repeat main-stage TED speaker; and he has been interviewed more than 1,000 times by media outlets around the world. He has been on Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list twice and was included in Prospect’s World Thinkers list, the youngest person in the top 15. He has an academic background in theoretical physics, AI, and computational neuroscience as well as philosophy.

Bostrom and Shermer discuss:

  • The Future of Life Institute’s Open Letter calling for a pause on “giant AI experiments”
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky Time OpEd: “Shut It All Down” — “Many researchers steeped in these issues, including myself, expect that the most likely result of building a superhumanly smart AI, under anything remotely like the current circumstances, is that literally everyone on Earth will die. Not as in ‘maybe possibly some remote chance,’ but as in ‘that is the obvious thing that would happen.’ If somebody builds a too-powerful AI, under present conditions, I expect that every single member of the human species and all biological life on Earth dies shortly thereafter.”
  • Utopia, Dystopia, Protopia
  • Would it be boring to live in a perfect world?
  • If we lived forever with everything we need, what would be the purpose of life?
  • Trekonomics, post-scarcity economics
  • The hedonic treadmill and positional wealth values—will people never be satisfied with “enough”?
  • Overpopulation of the 1960s and today’s birth dearth
  • Colonizing the galaxy (von Neumann probes, O’Neill cylinders, Dyson spheres)
  • The Fermi paradox: where is everyone?
  • Mind uploading and immortality
  • Examples of Technological Maturity
  • Google’s Gemini AI debacle
  • Large Language Models
  • ChatGPT, GPT-4, GPT-5 and beyond
  • The alignment problem
  • What set of values should AI be aligned with, and what legal and ethical status should it have?
  • The hard problem of consciousness
  • How would we know if an AI system was sentient?
  • Can AI systems be conscious?

On Mind Uploading and Replicating / Resurrecting Everyone Who Ever Lived

(An excerpt from Michael Shermer’s 2018 book Heavens on Earth.)

The sums involved in achieving immortality through the duplication or resurrection scenarios are not to be underestimated. There are around 85 billion neurons in a human brain, each with about a thousand synaptic links, for a total of 100 trillion connections to be accurately preserved and replicated. This is a staggering level of complexity made all the more so by the additional glial cells in the brain, which provide support and insulation for neurons and can change the actions of firing neurons, so these cells better be preserved as well in any duplication or resurrection scenario, just in case. Estimates of the ratio of glial cells to neurons in a brain vary from 1:1 to 10:1. If you’re not a lightning calculator, that computes to a total brain cell count of somewhere between 170 billion and 850 billion. Then factor in the hundreds or thousands of synaptic connections between each of the 85 billion neurons, adding approximately 100 trillion synaptic connections total for each brain. That’s not all. There are around ten billion proteins per neuron, which effect how memories are stored, plus the countless extracellular molecules in between those tens of billions of brain cells.

These estimates are just for the brain and do not even include the rest of the nervous system outside of the skull—what neuroscientists call the “embodied brain” or the “extended mind” and which many philosophers of mind believe is necessary for normal cognition. So you might want to have this extended mind resurrected or uploaded along with your mind. After all, you are not just your internal thoughts and emotions disconnected from your body. Many of your thoughts and emotions are intimately entwined with how your body interacts with its environment, so any preserved connectome, to be fully operational as recreating the experience of what it is like to be a sentient being, would also need to be housed in a body. So we would need a warehouse of brainless clones or very sophisticated robots prepared to have these uploaded mind neural units installed. How many? Well, to avoid the charge of elitism, it’s only fair that everyone who ever lived be resurrected, so that means multiplying the staggering data package for one person by 108 billion.

Then there’s the relationship between memory and life history. Our memory is not like a videotape that can be played back on the viewing screen of our minds. When an event happens to us, a selective impression of it is made on the brain through the senses. As that sense impression wends its way through different neural networks, where it ends up depends on what type of memory it is. As a memory is processed and prepared for long-term storage we rehearse it and in the process it is changed. This editing process depends on previous memories, subsequent events and memories, and emotions. This process recurs trillions of times in the course of a lifetime, to the point where we have to wonder if we have memories of actual events, or memories of the memories of those events, or even memories of memories of memories…. What’s the “true” memory? There is no such thing. Our memories are the product of trillions of synaptic neuronal connections that are constantly being edited, redacted, reinforced, and extinguished, such that a resurrection of a human with memories intact will depend on when in the individual’s life history the replication or resurrection is implemented.

In his book The Physics of Immortality the physicist Frank Tipler calculates that an Omega Point computer in the far future will contain 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 123 bits (a 1 followed by 10123 zeros), powerful enough, he says, to resurrect everyone who ever lived. That may be—it is a staggeringly large number—but is even an Omega Point computer powerful enough to reconstruct all of the historical contingencies and necessities in which a person lived, such as the weather, climate, geography, economic cycles, recessions and depressions, social trends, religious movements, wars, political revolutions, paradigm shifts, ideological revolutions, and the like, on top of duplicating our genome and connectome? It seems unlikely, but if so GOSH would also need to duplicate all of the individual conjunctures and interactions between that person and all other persons as they intersect with and influence each other in each of those lifetimes. Then multiply all that by the 108 billion people who ever lived or are currently living. Whatever the number, it would have to be even larger than the famed Googolplex (10 to the power of a googol, with a googol being 10100, or 1010100) from which Google and its Googleplex headquarters derived its name. Even a googol of googolplexes would not suffice. In essence, it would require the resurrection of the entire universe and its many billions of years of history. Inconceivable.

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This episode was released on April 16, 2024.

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