Monday, May 20, 2019

#60 - Véliz on How to Improve Online Speech with Pseudonymity

Carissa Veliz

In this episode I talk to Carissa Véliz. Carissa is a Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities at the University of Oxford. She works on digital ethics, practical ethics more generally, political philosophy, and public policy. She is also the Director of the research programme 'Data, Privacy, and the Individual' at the IE's Center for the Governance of Change'. We talk about the problems with online speech and how to use pseudonymity to address them.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and a variety of other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

 Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:25 - The problems with online speech
  • 4:55 - Anonymity vs Identifiability
  • 9:10 - The benefits of anonymous speech
  • 16:12 - The costs of anonymous speech - The online Ring of Gyges
  • 23:20 - How digital platforms mediate speech and make things worse
  • 28:00 - Is speech more trustworthy when the speaker is identifiable?
  • 30:50 - Solutions that don't work
  • 35:46 - How pseudonymity could address the problems with online speech
  • 41:15 - Three forms of pseudonymity and how they should be used
  • 44:00 - Do we need an organisation to manage online pseudonyms?
  • 49:00 - Thoughts on the Journal of Controversial Ideas
  • 54:00 - Will people use pseudonyms to deceive us?
  • 57:30 - How pseudonyms could address the issues with un-PC speech
  • 1:02:04 - Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of online speech?

Relevant Links

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Old Age and Decline: Some Philosophical Reflections

The Four Ages of Man - Nicolas Lancret

There’s an oft-repeated ‘fact’ thrown around in debates about retirement and old age. The details can vary but it’s something to the effect that when the pension entitlement age was set at 65 in the early part of the 20th century, very few people could expect to collect it, and those that did could only expect to collect for a few years (probably no more than 5). This was because life expectancy was so much lower back then. Hence setting pension entitlement at 65 was a relatively low cost gesture for the government. But what was low cost back then has turned into a major expenditure today, now that people are living so much longer and life expectancy has shot up. Whereas most people could only expect to live to their early 60s in the early 1900s, nowadays the majority can expect to live into their late 70s/early 80s. This places considerable strain on public finances and means more people are spending more of their lives in a ‘retired’ and ‘non-productive’ (from an economic/tax-paying perspective) state.

Having done some digging, it turns out this fact is not quite true. While it is true that life expectancy was much lower back then, that was mainly due to high infant and early adult mortality (due to infectious disease and war). If you cleared those early-life hurdles, and made it all the way to 65, you could expect to live a good bit longer, upwards of 13 years in fact (more if you were a woman). That post-65 life expectancy has gone up since then, but by much less than how much life expectancy as a whole has gone up as whole. This doesn’t mean that costs are not increasing — the huge drop in early life mortality means a lot more people are making it to their late 60s. It also doesn’t detract from the fact that more and more people are entering this ‘retired’ phase of life.

But what does it mean to enter that phase of life? Many of us, myself included, have a negative perception of ageing and retirement. We see ‘old age’ as a period of inevitable decline and senescence. It is a phase of life marked by narrowing horizons, and a fall from grace and prowess. Although death looms large in old age, it is not the only negative aspect of the ageing process. If the Epicureans are right, then death itself is nothing to us; it is the period of life just before death — when we retreat from public view and lose our sense of significance, purpose and social meaning — that is the most existentially terrifying phase of life.

Is there anything to be said to quell these fears of ageing? Can we live valuable and meaningful lives in old age? There is a surprising lack of philosophical commentary on this issue. One of the more prominent contributors to the debate (Jan Baars) has argued that Western philosophy’s obsession with death has tended to suck attention away from old age. Nevertheless, there has been some work done on the topic and in what follows I want to share my own, poorly structured thoughts on it. This is a partial and selective take on old age, reflecting my own interests and biases. Still, some of you might find it interesting.

I start by looking at what I take to be the standard, ‘decline’-oriented view of old age. I then consider the alternatives to it.

1. The Decline Argument: A General Schema
There are some cultures where the elderly are afforded a lot of respect. Indeed, there is a famous adage stating that ‘with age comes wisdom’. Nevertheless, a common view in Western societies is that old age is a period of decline and devaluation. Simone de Beauvoir comments on this in her book The Coming of Age. She notes that many people are uncomfortable around the elderly. They see them as a social nuisance — a burden on the productive working population. They see them as something ’other’ or ‘foreign’. They try to marginalise and obscure them from sight through hollow gestures of charity:

Society appears to think that they belong to an entirely different species: for if all that is needed to feel that one has done one’s duty by them is to grant them a wretched pittance, then they have neither the same needs nor the same feelings as other men. 
(1972, p 9)

De Beauvoir links this attitude to the productivist ethos that underscores the modern economy:

The economy is founded upon profit; and in actual fact the entire civilization is ruled by profit. The human working stock is of interest only insofar as it is profitable. When it is no longer profitable it is tossed aside. 
(1972, p. 13)

This resonates. Certainly in debates about pension entitlements one often hears mention of the ‘burden’ that the elderly place on the working population. To be clear, this often comes with a sense of duty to the elderly, i.e. with a sense that they have done their bit for the economy and so deserve some protection, but, still, there is some begrudgery to the arrangement.

We should not, however, get too hung up on the economic devaluation of the elderly. It is significant but there is also a wider sense of decline and devaluation at play. There is the general belief that old age is a state in which you inevitably lose the capacities that make you valuable to yourself and your society (creativity, innovation, productivity, moral foresight, aesthetic beauty, physical prowess and so forth). Consequently, there is the sense that there is an inevitable general devaluation in old age.

This suggests that the following argument scheme undergirds the negative attitudes toward ageing:

  • (1) A life is valuable only if it has properties P1, P2…Pn. [The value premise]
  • (2) In old age, you inevitably lose (or experience some decline in) properties P1, P2…Pn. [The decline premise]
  • (3) Therefore, old age is inevitably a period in which your life becomes devalued.

I will evaluate the merits of this argument below. Before getting to that, however, it’s worth making a few comments on how it ought to be interpreted and understood.

First, note that this argument is a template that can be filled in with specific examples of the relevant value-conferring properties. You could, for instance, argue that life is valuable only to the extent that it is artistically creative; that old age inevitably brings about a decline in artistic creativity; and hence conclude old age results in an inevitable loss of value. Different combinations of value-conferring properties might make the argument more or less persuasive. Furthermore, these value-conferring properties could emanate from very different philosophical perspectives. For example, one could make the argument with personal value in mind (i.e. the value of a life to the one that is living it), or objective moral value in mind (i.e. the value of the life to the universe/humanity as a whole). Selecting one perspective over the other could make for very different arguments. A life could, after all, lack value from the personal perspective without lacking value from an objective perspective, and vice versa. This is to say nothing of socially constructed metrics of value (such as fame or economic value) and how they could be worked into the argument.

Second, note that there is some fuzziness to premise (2). This must be factored into the interpretation. I’ll say a bit more about the nature of ‘old age’ below, but here I want to point out that — at the limit — the decline premise is almost always true: people must lose some capacities in old age (after all, ultimately they must lose their lives). The only way this could fail to be true is if we invent perfect anti-ageing technologies that mean we can restore any lost capacity. This remains a pipe dream for now. This is important because, given the inevitable (at the limit) association between old age and loss of capacity, it might be tempting to simply define old age in terms of that loss of capacity. We must not succumb to that temptation. Doing so would make the argument trivially true. Old age must be defined as something other than the loss of properties P1, P2…Pn if the argument is to be interesting.

2. What is old age?
But then how should we define ‘old age’? We could lose a lot of time to this question. Jan Baars has some fascinating meditations on the ontology of old age in his work. He notes there are multiple different measures of old age and they don’t necessarily coincide on a common definition.

There is, for example, the standard chronometric measure of age. This is the measure of the number of minutes, hours, days, months and years since a person was born. This is a simple objective fact about the person that is easy to track and record. The problem is that this doesn’t tell you exactly when a person becomes old (if that even makes sense). You would have to pick some arbitrary cutoff point in the chronological measure (e.g. age 65 or 70) and define as ‘old age’ anything above that cutoff point. But that’s not particularly helpful since it doesn’t provide any reasoned justification for the choice of cutoff point.

This arbitrary, chronometric, approach to old age could then quickly lead to trouble. Here’s one: it is common for statisticians to associate clusters of capacities and abilities with chronometric ages (e.g. mental acuity, reading ability, physical dexterity). This allows them to say things like “If you are aged 18, you should expect to have properties X, Y and Z” and “if you are aged 65, you should expect properties P, Q and R”. But these are just statistical averages. You may not have those properties. This can lead to all sorts of odd statements being made about your age relative to the statistical average. For example, when I was younger it was common for students to be told their ‘reading age’ after standard assessments of reading comprehension. I remember I was quite chuffed when I heard that my ‘reading age’ was far in excess of my chronometric age. I was less chuffed, years later, when I was told that the age typically associated with my level of physical fitness was in excess of my chronometric age. This mismatch between one’s actual capacities and the statistical norms associated with chronometric age can lead to ageism, and makes articles like this one (on the ethics of ‘trans-ageism’) inevitable.

The other problem with the chronometric approach is that attitudes toward different chronometric ages are highly variable. The social and biological facts of ageing can change, depending on culture and technology. While 65 might have seemed like an appropriate retirement age 100 years ago, nowadays it doesn’t. That’s one reason why people call for increases in the retirement age (or a complete rejection of the concept). At the same time, as Baars notes, there is a tendency within certain groups to push back the chronometric cutoff to old age in order to promote certain interests. For example, an athlete is considered old in their 30s, ‘older workers’ are often relatively young (50ish), and so-called ‘mature students’ in universities can be very young indeed (early 20s).

As I say, we could waste a lot of time trying to figure out what old age actually is. I don’t want to go there because I don’t think there is a wholly satisfying answer. I do, however, think there are useful paradigm cases of old age that can guide our analysis. Thus, even though there is disagreement around the margins, I suspect most of us would agree that someone in their late 70s and 80s would count as being old age. Why so? I presume the answer lies in a combination of biological and chronometric reality and socially constructed norms and attitudes. Thus, I don’t think being old is a simple objective fact about a person — associated with their chronometric age — but rather is a complex bio-social-physical fact. It is not a fact that can be entirely self-determined (you cannot ‘will’ yourself to be younger), but it is a fact that is somewhat contingent and open to renegotiation (because of changing technological and medical realities as well as changing social perceptions).

With that clarification out of the way, I will spend the remainder of this article assessing the merits of the decline argument, focusing in particular on ways to object to its two premises. In doing so, I will have paradigmatic cases of old age in mind.

3. Rejecting the Decline Premise
One obvious way to object to the argument is to reject its second premise: the decline premise. The claim that old age is inevitably associated with some decline or obsolescence in value-conferring properties P1…Pn is, undoubtedly, going to be shaped by the statistical averages and social perceptions attached to certain chronometric ages. These averages and perceptions can be challenged.

To make this concrete, let’s consider a specific example. Suppose that within the world of mathematicians it is common to hear claims like “no mathematician over the age of 40 makes a significant breakthrough”. Any mathematician unlucky enough to be over the age of 40 (or should that be ‘lucky enough’ since the alternative fate is presumably worse?) would be devalued by other members of their profession as a result of this belief. But is the belief accurate? Any particular mathematician could undermine by pointing out that the belief does not hold true in her case (i.e. that they have made significant breakthroughs despite being over the age of 40), or by pointing out that it is based on a statistical misperception or error. In other words, they could either argue that (a) they are an exception to the perceived rule or (b) the perceived rule is false.

One or both of these strategies may work, depending on the individual case. In his article on successful ageing, Howard Harriott uses the example of the artist Matisse to illustrate how it is possible for an older person to live a life of significance. In Matisse’s case, his life’s mission centred around art and artistic creativity. He battled against the perception that art is a ‘young man’s game’ and dramatically illustrated how untrue this was through his own example. Despite being lambasted by the critics and suffering from several illnesses and frailties, he embarked on a ‘second life’ in his 70s and produced some of his most memorable work as a result:

In this late phase of his life, he embarks on a series of new works such as Florilége des Amours de Ronsard, Thèmes et variations, collages and innovative cutouts (papiers découpés). He embraces the “colors” of jazz as he transforms the vibrancy of jazz sounds and rhythms into a visual medium and produces his final triumph: the glorious chapel at Vence. Viewing Matisse’s later works, as for instance recently convened at the Musée de Luxembourg, in Paris, one gets the full sense of why Matisse’s work so illustrates the new paradigm of the creative life as seriously possible in old age. 
(Harriott 2006, 120)

Some people may object that Matisse and others like him are unusual figures — the exceptions that prove the general rule — but it’s not clear if that is accurate. It could be that general perceptions of decline in old age are misguided and that elderly people are much more capable than is believed. I have no doubt that there are a lot of ageist, unjustified assumptions made about them. Still, there are limits to this. For at least some value-conferring properties it will be true that old age is inevitably associated with decline and loss. For example, athletic prowess and physical fitness. At best, elderly people can minimise the losses they suffer with respect to those value-conferring properties: they cannot completely avoid them. So even if some formulations of premise (2) do not work; others probably will and the resultant decline and loss of value will be painful.

4. Finding alternative sources of value
A more promising strategy for objecting to the decline argument is to take issue with the first premise. Of course, as noted above, the first premise has no content in the abstract form. You need to identify specific value-conferring properties for it to make sense. Furthermore, it would be odd to reject all potential variations on the first premise: that would be tantamount to nihilism. If you want your life and the lives of others to have value you need to accept the existence of some value conferring properties. So what you need to do is find variations on premise (1) that are either more resilient to old age or not undermined or affected by old age.

This is what Howard Harriott recommends in his article on successful ageing. He argues that life has value to the one who lives it (personal value) when it is characterised by some commitment to ideals. These ideals can take many forms, e.g. commitment to artistic excellence, scientific discovery and so on. If you want to retain personal value into old age then you need to focus on ideals that can sustain your commitment into old age. Again, Matisse is Harriott’s go-to example, but others easily spring to mind. I think a lot of Einstein in this regard. He remained steadfastly committed to developing a unified theory of physics right up until his final days. According to reports, he was scribbling equations in his hospital bed just hours before he died. Admittedly, Einstein’s unified theories weren’t successful in the objective sense, but at least they gave him a sense of purpose right up until his death. He was committed to an ideal — scientific discovery — that was relatively impervious to the vicissitudes of old age. It is also worth mentioning here that studies that have been done on elderly populations suggest that they derive most meaning from sustained social and family relationships, both of which can be sustained despite ageing (although both can suffer too).

The important lesson to learn from both Einstein and Matisse is that retaining value in old age is a function of choosing ideals that are resilient. But what if your ideals are not so resilient? What if, for example, your ideals are built around physical fitness and athletic prowess? The answer is that you could probably sustain some version of those ideals into old age, but it might require some modification. If you were once an elite athlete, you will have to accept that you won’t be able to compete to the highest levels into your dotage. But you could continue to be the best within your age range (injuries permitting) or you could switch to training and educating future generations of athletes. In other words, if you have some flexibility of mind, you can sustain value in the face of changing circumstances.

This last point is worth emphasising. In classic Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, people were encouraged to ‘thanatise’ their desires so as not to be so afraid of death. In other words, they were encouraged to accept the unavoidability of death and factor that into how they structured and planned their lives. Jan Baars recommends a similar strategy when it comes to ageing. He thinks we need to accept that everything in life (peak productivity; cognitive capacity; physical prowess etc) is finite and subject to decay. We need to build a conception of a meaningful life that recognises and makes space for that finitude.

That sounds good in theory, but might be hard in practice. One reason it might be hard is because this whole line of argument assumes that people can simply pick and choose their own values rather than having them imposed from the outside. The great tragedy of ageing in the modern world is that devaluation results from the imposition of values and standards from the outside. How do you deal with that problem?

5. The Value of Escaping Imposed Ideals
One way to cope with that problem is to take solace in the fact that if you are no longer perceived to be valuable in the eyes of others you are both (a) more free to determine your own value in life and (b) exempted from the burdens and expectations that are imposed on younger people. This can be liberating and uplifting.

Consider once more the productivist ethos that pervades much of modern life. According to this ethos, you are valuable only to the extent that you make some productive contribution to society. This could take a number of different forms, but for most people it is economic productivity that matters most. While making economic contributions can be very meaningful to some people, it can also be exhausting and dispiriting. Instead of following your passions and talents, you have to fit within the demands of the labour market. You have to do something ‘useful’ and avoid idle luxuries. You have to compromise on your values and sell yourself to others. You have to impress them and suck up to them. You have to ingratiate yourself with the powerful and shower them with false praise. In return, they might do the same for you. As a result, you all benefit from increased perception of social value. But at what personal cost? No longer being seen as productively valuable might give you a nice excuse to be rid of all this fakery and flattery.

There could also be a significant gendered aspect to this. Simone de Beauvoir comments on the different expectations of age in her work. And while researching this article, I randomly came across a piece written by the philosopher Andreas Blank about ageing and self-esteem in the writings of Anne-Thérèse de Lambert. Lambert was an 18th century French intellectual and essay writer who wrote about the ‘economy of self-esteem’ and ageing in women. Blank argues that her views provide a contrast with those of the well-known maxim-writer La Rouchefoucauld. Whereas he essentially accepted the modern view that old age was a period of decline from former prowess, she argued that it could be liberating, particularly for women. In a society that did not value women for intellectual ability or economic productivity, but essentially valued them only for looks, charm and fertility, there was something to look forward to in old age. Freed from the burden of erotic expectation, and from the need to impress powerful men, women could cultivate a more intellectual and satisfying mode of life. As she put it:

[Old age] liberates us from the tyranny of opinion. When one is young, one only dreams of living in the idea of someone else; one must establish one’s reputation and create for oneself an honorable place in the imagination of others, and be happy even in their idea; our happiness is not at all real, it is not ourselves whom we consult but others. In a different age, we turn to ourselves, and this return has sweetness, we begin to consult ourselves, and to believe ourselves; we escape chance and illusion; men have lost their right to deceive us… 
(Lambert, quoted in Blank 2018, 299-300)

This is, no doubt, naive and optimistic but there is something very appealing in what she has to say. The idea that old age can free us from the ‘tyranny of opinion’ is one that I find comforting.

Monday, May 13, 2019

AI and Sexuality (New Paper)

I have new paper. This one is set to appear in the Oxford Handbook of the Ethics of AI, which is edited by Markus Dubber, Frank Pasquale and Sunit Das. The book isn't out yet. I believe it is due out in the Autumn/Fall. You can access the penultimate draft at the links below.
Title: Sexuality
Book: The Oxford Handbook of the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence
Links: Philpapers; Researchgate; Academia
Abstract:  Sex is an important part of human life. It is a source of pleasure and intimacy, and is integral to many people's self-identity. This chapter examines the opportunities and challenges posed by the use of AI in how humans express and enact their sexualities. It does so by focusing on three main issues. First, it considers the idea of digisexuality, which according to McArthur and Twist (2017) is the label that should be applied to those 'whose primary sexual identity comes through the use of technology', particularly through the use of robotics and AI. While agreeing that this phenomenon is worthy of greater scrutiny, the chapter questions whether it is necessary or socially desirable to see this as a new form of sexual identity. Second, it looks at the role that AI can play in facilitating human-to-human sexual contact, focusing in particular on the use of self-tracking and predictive analytics in optimising sexual and intimate behaviour. There are already a number of apps and services that promise to use AI to do this, but they pose a range of ethical risks that need to be addressed at both an individual and societal level. Finally, it considers the idea that a sophisticated form of AI could be an object of love. Can we be truly intimate with something that has been 'programmed' to love us? Contrary to the widely-held view, this chapter argues that this is indeed possible.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

#59 - Torres on Existential Risk, Omnicidal Agents and Superintelligence

Phil Torres

In this episode I talk to Phil Torres. Phil is an author and researcher who primarily focuses on existential risk. He is currently a visiting researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University. He has published widely on emerging technologies, terrorism, and existential risks, with articles appearing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Futures, Erkenntnis, Metaphilosophy, Foresight, Journal of Future Studies, and the Journal of Evolution and Technology. He is the author of several books, including most recently Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks. We talk about the problem of apocalyptic terrorists, the proliferation dual-use technology and the governance problem that arises as a result. This is both a fascinating and potentially terrifying discussion.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and a variety of other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 – Introduction
  • 3:14 – What is existential risk? Why should we care?
  • 8:34 – The four types of agential risk/omnicidal terrorists
  • 17:51 – Are there really omnicidal terror agents?
  • 20:45 – How dual-use technology give apocalyptic terror agents the means to their desired ends
  • 27:54 – How technological civilisation is uniquely vulernable to omnicidal agents
  • 32:00 – Why not just stop creating dangerous technologies?
  • 36:47 – Making the case for mass surveillance
  • 41:08 – Why mass surveillance must be asymmetrical
  • 45:02 – Mass surveillance, the problem of false positives and dystopian governance
  • 56:25 – Making the case for benevolent superintelligent governance
  • 1:02:51 – Why advocate for something so fantastical?
  • 1:06:42 – Is an anti-tech solution any more fantastical than a benevolent AI solution?
  • 1:10:20 – Does it all just come down to values: are you a techno-optimist or a techno-pessimist?

Relevant Links


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Possible Worlds and Possible Lives: A Meditation on the Art of Living

Here’s a simple thought, but one that I think is quite profound: one’s happiness in life depends, to a large extent, on how one thinks about and navigates the space of possible lives one could have lived. If you have too broad a conception of the space of possibility, you are likely to be anxious and unable to act, always fearing that you are missing out on something better. If you have too narrow a conception of the space of possibility, you are likely to be miserable (particularly if you get trapped in a bad set of branches in the space of possibility) and unable to live life to its full. But it’s not that simple either. Sometimes you have to focus on the negative and sometimes you have to narrow your mindset.

I say this is a profound but simple thought. Why so? Well, it strikes me as profound because it captures something that is fundamentally true about the human condition, something that is integral to a number of philosophical discussions of well-being. It strikes me as simple because I think it’s something that is relatively obvious and presumably must have occurred to many people over the course of human history. And yet, for some reason, I don’t find many people talking about it.

Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of people talk about possible worlds in philosophy and science, and many specific discussions of human life touch upon the idea outlined in the opening paragraph. For example, discussions of human emotions such as regret, or the rationality of decision-making, or the philosophical significance of death, often touch upon the importance of thinking in terms of possible lives. What frustrates me about these discussions is that they don’t do so in an explicit or integrated way.

This article is my attempt to make up for this perceived deficiency. I want to justify my opening claim that one’s happiness in life depends on how one thinks about and navigates the space of possible lives; and I want to further support my assertion that this is a simple and profound idea. I start by clarifying exactly what I am talking about.

1. The Basic Picture: The Space of Possible Lives
The actual world is the world in which we currently live. It can be defined in terms of a list of propositions that exhaustively describes the features of this world. A possible world is a world that could exist. It can be defined as any logically consistent set of propositions describing a world. The space of logically possible worlds is vast. Logical consistency is only a minor constraint on what is possible. Virtually anything goes if this is your only limitation on what is possible. For example, there is a logically possible world in which the only things that exist are an apple and a cat, inside a large box.

This possible world isn’t very likely, of course, and this raises an important point. Possible worlds can be ordered in terms of their accessibility to us. It is easiest to define this in terms of the “distance” between a possible world and the actual world in which we live. Worlds that are ‘close’ to our own world (in the sense that they differ minimally) can be presumed to be relatively accessible to us (though see the discussion below of determinism and free will); contrariwise, worlds that are ‘far away’ (in the sense that they have many differences from our own world) are relatively inaccessible. Some possible worlds will require a technological breakthrough to make them accessible to us (e.g. a world in which interstellar travel is possible for creatures like us); others may never be accessible to us because they breach the fundamental physical laws of our reality (e.g. a world in which universal entropy is reversed). Philosophers often distinguish between these different shades of possibility by using phrases like “physical possibility”, “technical possibility” and so on. Probability is also an important part of the discussion as it gives us a way of quantitatively ranking the accessibility of a possible world.

The idea of a “possible life” can be defined in terms of a possible world. Your actual life is the life you are currently living in the actual world. A “possible life” is simply a different life that you could be living in another possible world. One way of thinking about this is to simply imagine a different possible world where the only differences between it and the actual world relate specifically to your life. Possible lives exist in the past and in the future. There are possible lives that I could have lived and possible lives that I might yet live. For example, there is a possible life where I studied medicine at university rather than law. If I had followed that path, my present life could be very different. Likewise, there is possible life where I run for political office in the future. If I follow that path, my life will end up being very different from what I currently envisage.

Possible lives can be arranged and ranked in a number of different ways. Obviously, they can be ranked in terms of their accessibility to us (as per the previous discussion of possible worlds), or they can be ranked in terms in their normative value to us. Some possible lives are better than others. A possible life in which I murder someone and get sent to jail for life is presumably going to be worse (for me and for others) than a world in which I work hard and discover a cure for some serious disease.

Pictures are worth a thousand words so consider the image below. It illustrates what I would take to be the fundamental predicament of life. In the centre of the image is a person. Let’s suppose this person is you. The thick bold line represents your actual life (i.e. the life, out of all the possible lives you could have lived, that you are actually living). To the left of your present location is your past and arranged along each side of the thick bold line are the possible lives you could have lived before the present moment. To the right of your present location is your future and arranged along each side of the centre line are the possible lives you might yet live. The possible lives that lie above the line represent lives that are better than your current, actual, life; the possible lives that lie below the line represent lives that are worse than your current life. The accessibility of lives can also be represented in this image. We can assume that the further a life lies from the centre line, the less accessible it is (though in saying this it is important to realise that accessibility does not correlate with betterness or worseness, which is an impression you might get from the way in which I have illustrated it).

The Human Predicament: The Space of Possible Lives

The essence of my position is that how we think about our predicament — nested in a latticework of possible lives — will to a large extent determine how happy and successful we are in our actual life. In particular, broadening and narrowing our conception of the set of possible lives we could have lived, and might yet live, is key to happiness.

2. The Elephant in the Room: Determinism
Before I go any further, I need to address the elephant in the room: determinism. Determinism is a philosophical thesis that holds that every event that occurs in this actual world has a sufficient cause of its existence in the prior events in this world. The life you are living today is the product of all the events that occurred prior to the present moment. Given those events, there is no other way the present moment could have turned out. It simply had to be this way.

There is another way of putting this. According to one well-known philosophical definition of determinism — first coined, I believe, by Peter Van Inwagen — determinism is the view that there is only one possible future. Given the full set of past events (E1…En) there is only one possible next event (En+1), because those prior events fully determine the nature and character of En+1).

If determinism is true, it would seem to put paid to the argument I’m trying to put forward in this article. After all, if determinism is true, it would seem to follow that all talk about the possible lives we could have lived, and might yet live, is fantastical poppycock. There is only one life we could ever live and we may as well get used to it.

But I don’t quite see it that way. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that determinism is a metaphysical thesis, not a scientific one. No amount of scientific evidence of deterministic causation can fully confirm the truth of determinism. And, what’s more, there are some prominent scientific theories that seem to be open to some degree of indeterminism (e.g. quantum theory) or, if not that, are at least open to “possible worlds”-thinking. It is worth noting, for example, that some highly deterministic theories in cosmology and quantum mechanics only preserve their determinism if they allow for possibility of multiple universes and many worlds. The most famous example of this might be the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, first set out by Hugh Everett. This interpretation retains the determinism of the quantum mechanical Schrödinger equation but only does so by holding that there are many different worlds in existence. These worlds may or may not be accessible to us, but it is not illegitimate to talk about them.

Admittedly, these esoteric aspects of cosmology and quantum theory don’t hold much succour for the kind of position I’m defending here. But that brings me to a more important point. Even if determinism is true (and there is, literally, only one possible future) it does not follow that thinking about one’s life in terms of the possible lives one could have lived and might yet live is illegitimate. If the world is deterministic it is still likely to be causally complex. This means that, even if determinism is true, there will often be no easy way for us to say what caused what and what follows from this.

An analogy might help to underscore this. When I was a student, one of the favoured topics in history class was “The Causes of World War I”. I learned from these classes that there are many putative causes of World War I. It’s hard to say which “cause” was critical, if any. Perhaps World War I was caused by German aggression, or perhaps, as Christopher Clark argues in his book The Sleepwalkers, it was a complex concatenation of events, no one of which was sufficient in its own right. It’s really hard to say. For all we know, in the absence of German aggression, things might have gone very differently. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe we would have stumbled into a great war anyway. Historians and fiction writers love to speculate, and it’s often useful to do so: we gain insight into the past by imagining the counterfactuals, and gain wisdom for the future by thinking through the different possible worlds.

What is true for historians and fiction writers is also true for ourselves when we look at our own lives. Our own lives are causally complex. For any one event that occurred in our past (or that may yet occur in our future) there is probably a whole panoply of events that may or may not be critical to its occurrence. As a result, for all we know, there may have been other lives we could have lived and may yet live. To put this more philosophically, even if it is true that we live in a metaphysically deterministic world in which there is only one possible future, to all intents and purposes we still live in an epistemically indeterministic world in which multiple possible futures seem to still be accessible to us.

In this respect, it is important to bear in mind the distinction between fatalism and determinism. Just because the world is deterministic, does not imply that we play no part in shaping its future. We still make a difference and in order to make sense of the difference we might make, we need to entertain “possible worlds”-thinking.

All of this leads me to conclude that determinism does not scupper the argument I am trying to make.

3. Looking Back: Regret, Guilt and Gratitude
If we accept that it is legitimate to think in terms of possible lives, then we open ourselves up to the idea that thinking wisely about the space of possibility is key to happiness and success. To illustrate, we can start by looking back, i.e. by considering the life we are living in the present moment relative to the other lives we might have lived before the present moment.

If, when we do this, we focus predominantly on possible lives that would have been better than the life we are currently living (along whatever metric of “betterness” we prefer), we are likely to be pretty miserable. We will tend to be struck by the sense that our actual life does not measure up. There are better lives we could have been living. Two emotions/attitudes are commonly associated with this style of thinking. The first is regret. This is both a negative feeling about your present life and a judgment that it is inferior to other possibilities. Regret is usually tied to specific past decisions. We regret making those decisions and judge that we could have done better. Sometimes, regret is more general and vague. There is no specific decision that we regret, but we are filled with the general sense that things are not as good as they could be. When the choices we make end up doing harm to others, regret can turn into a guilt. We can become wracked by the sense that not only are our lives worse than they might have been, but we have failed in our moral duties too.

As I noted on a previous occasion, I find my own thoughts about the past to be preoccupied by feelings of regret and guilt. I regret not making certain decisions earlier in life (e.g. getting married, having children) or not seizing certain opportunities (e.g. better jobs and so on). This regret can sometimes be overwhelming, even though I acknowledge that it is often irrational. Given the aforementioned causal complexity of the real world, there is no guarantee that if I had done things differently they would have turned out for the better. Thinking about regret in these philosophical terms sometimes helps me to escape the trap of negative thinking.

If, when we look to the past, we focus predominantly on possible lives that would have been worse that the life we are currently living, we are likely to pretty happy. I say this with some trepidation. It’s possible that some people have a very low hedonic baseline and so no amount of positive thinking about the past will make them happy, but as a general rule of thumb it seems to follow that happiness flows from focusing on the negative space of possibility in the past. If things could have been much worse than they currently are, then we are likely to think that our present lives are not all that bad. This is, in fact, a classic Stoic tactic for ensuring more contentment in life: always imagine how things might have been worse.

Two emotions/attitudes are commonly associated with this style of thinking. The first is achievement. This is a self-directed emotion and judgment that arises from the belief that you have made your life better than it might otherwise have been. You have charted some stormy waters and navigated a way through the space of possibility that avoided bad outcomes (failure, hardship etc). The second is a feeling of gratitude. This is an other-directed (or outward-directed) emotion and judgment that arises from the belief that although you may not have controlled it, your life has turned out better than it might have done. This could be because other people helped you out, or it could be through sheer luck and accident of birth (though some people might like to distinguish the feeling of luck from that of gratitude).

Given these reflections on looking back, you might think there is an easy way to make yourself happy: focus on how your present life is better than many of the possible lives you could have lived, and don’t focus on how it is worse than others. But that’s easier said than done. Sometimes you can get trapped in spirals of negative thinking where you always think about how things could have been better. Furthermore, focusing entirely on how things might have been worse could well be counterproductive. As I noted in an earlier article not all regret is bad. You can learn a lot about yourself from your regrets. You can learn about your desires and personal values. This is crucial when we start to look forward.

4. Looking Forward: Optimism, Pessimism and Death
Although looking back is a useful practice, and although it is often an important source of self-knowledge, ultimately looking forward is more important. This is because we live our lives in the forward-looking direction. Life is a one-way journey to the future. Until we invent a technology that enables us to actually go back in time, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that our main opportunity for exploring possible lives lies in the future.

When looking forward, one question predominates: which of the many possible futures that we could access will we actually end up accessing?

If, when we ask this question, we focus primarily on possible futures that are better than our present lives, we are likely to be quite optimistic. Indeed, focusing on better possible futures and the things you can do to make them more accessible, might be one of the keys to happiness. On a previous occasion, I looked at Lisa Bortolotti’s “agency” theory of optimism. In defending this theory, Bortolotti noted that many forms of optimism are irrational: assuming the future is going to be better than the past is often epistemically unwarranted. Nevertheless, assuming that you have some control over the future — even if this is epistemically unwarranted from an objective perspective — does seem to correlate with an increased chance of success. Bortolotti cited some famous studies on cancer patients in support of this view. In those studies, the cancer patients that believed they could influence their prospects of recovery, through, for example, dietary changes or exercise or other personal health regimes, generally did better than those with a more fatalistic attitude.

If, on the other hand, we focus primarily on futures that are worse than our present predicament, we are likely to be quite pessimistic. If we think that we are on the brink of some major personal or societal failure, and that there is nothing we can do to avert this outcome, then we will have little to look forward to. But, we have to be cautious in saying this. Blindly ignoring negative futures is a bad idea. There is an old adage to the effect that you have to “plan for the worst and hope for the best”. There must be some truth to that. You need to be aware of the risks you might be running. You need to develop strategies to avoid them. Indeed, this willingness to think about and anticipate negative futures is key to the agency theory of optimism outlined by Bortolotti. The more successful cancer patients are not the ones that bury their heads in the sand about their condition and blithely think everything will turn out for the best. They are often very aware of the dangers. They just assume that there is something they can do to avoid the negative possibilities.

There is another point here that I think is key when looking forward. How narrowly or broadly we frame the set of possible futures can have a significant impact on our happiness. A narrow framing arises when we think that there are only one or two possible futures accessible to us; a broader framing arises when think in terms of larger numbers of possibilities. Generally speaking, narrowly framing the future set of possibilities is a bad thing. It encourages you to think in terms of false dichotomies or tradeoffs (either X happens and everything goes badly or Y happens and everything goes well). If you ever find yourself trapped in a narrow framing, it is usually a good idea to take a step back and try to broaden your framing. For example, when thinking about how you might “balance” career ambitions with home and family life, you might have tendency to narrowly frame the future in terms of an either/or choice: either I have a happy family life or a fulfilling career. But usually choices are more complex than that. There are more possibilities and options to explore. Some of those possible futures might allow for a more harmonious balancing of the two goals.

This is not to say that compromises and tradeoffs are always avoidable. They are not. But it is better to reach that conclusion after a full exploration of the set of possible futures than after a cursory search, particularly when it comes to major life choices. Or so I have found. That said, I also think it is possible to have too broad a framing of the possible futures. You can easily become overwhelmed by the possibilities and paralysed by the number of options. Sometimes a narrow framing concentrates the mind and motivates action. It’s all about finding the right balance: don’t be too narrow-minded, try to focus on the positive, but don’t be too open-minded and ignore the negative either.

Three other points strike me as being apposite when looking forward.

First, I think it is worth reflecting on the role that technology plays in opening up the space of possible futures. I briefly alluded to this earlier on when I pointed out that the development of certain technologies (e.g. interstellar spaceships) might make possible futures accessible to us that we never previously considered. Of course, interstellar spaceships are just a dramatic example of a much more general phenomenon. All manner of technological innovations, from penicillin to international flights to smartphones do the same thing: they give us access to futures that would otherwise have been impossible. That’s often a good thing, it gets us out of small, negative spaces of possibility, but remember that technology usually opens up possible futures on both the positive and negative side of the ledger. There are more possible, better futures and more possible negative futures. Techno-optimists tend to exaggerate the former; techno-pessimists the latter.

Second, it is worth reflecting on the importance of “thinking in bets” when it comes to how we navigate the set of future possibilities. Since we rarely have perfect control over the future, and since there is much that is uncertain about the unfolding of events, we have to play the odds and hedge our bets, rather than fixate on getting things “right”. Those who are more attuned to this style of thinking will tend to do better, at least in the long run. But, again, this is often easier said than done because it requires a more reflective and detached outlook on what happens as a result of any one decision.

Finally, we have to think about death. Death is, for each individual, the end of all possibilities. It has an interesting effect on the space of possible lives. Once you die, the network of possible lives you could have lived or might yet live vanishes. All the branches are pruned away. All that is left is one solid line through the space of possibility. This line represents the actual life you lived. What trajectory does that line take through the space of possibility? Does it veer upwards or downwards (relative to the dimension of betterness or worseness)? Does it end on a high or low? Although I am somewhat sceptical of our capacity to control the total narrative of our lives, I do think it is worth thinking, occasionally, about the overall shape we would like our lives to have. Maintaining a gently sloping upward trajectory seems like more of a recipe for happiness than riding a roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows.

5. Conclusion
So where does that leave us? I hope I have said enough to convince you that thinking in terms of possible lives is central to the well-lived life. I also hope I have said enough to convince you that there is no simple algorithm you can apply to this task. You might suppose that you can thrive by not dwelling on how things might have been better in the past, and think more about how they might be better in the future (and, in particular, about how you might make them better). And I am sure that this simple heuristic might work in some cases. But things are not that straightforward. You have to learn from past mistakes and embrace some feelings of regret. You have choose the wisest framing of the future possibility space to make the best choices. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will guarantee success and happiness.

You might still argue that all of this is trivial and unhelpful. Maybe that is so, but I still maintain my opening position that there is something profound about the idea. Thinking in terms of possible lives integrates and unites many different fields of philosophical inquiry. It integrates concerns about probability and risk, technology and futurism, the philosophy of the emotions, and the tension between optimism and pessimism. It allows us to reconceive and approach all these debates under the same unifying perspective. That seems pretty insightful to me.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Who Should Explore Space: Robots or Humans?

Should humans explore the depths of space? Should we settle on Mars? Should we become a “multi-planetary species”? There is something in the ideal of human space exploration that stirs the soul, that speaks to a primal instinct, that plays upon the desire to explore and test ourselves to the limit. At the same time, there are practical reasons to want to take the giant leap. Space is filled with resources (energy, minerals etc) that we can utilise, and threats we must neutralise (solar flares, asteroids etc).

On previous occasions, I have looked at various arguments defending the view that we ought to explore space. Those arguments fall into three main categories: (i) intellectual arguments, i.e. ones that focus on the intellectual and epistemic benefits of exploring space and learning more about our place within it; (ii) utopian/spiritual arguments, i.e. ones that focus on the need to create a dynamic, open-ended and radically better future for humanity, both for moral and personal reasons; and (iii) existential risk arguments, i.e. ones that focus on the need to explore space to both prevent and avoid existential risks to humanity.

For the purposes of this article, let’s assume that these arguments are valid. In other words, let’s assume that they do indeed provide compelling reasons to explore space. Now, let’s ask the obvious follow-up question: does this mean that humans should be the ones doing the exploring? It is already the case that robots (broadly conceived) do most of the space exploration. There are a handful of humans who have made the trip. But since the end of the Apollo missions in the early 1970s, humans have not gone much further than low earth orbit. For the most part, humans sit back on earth and control the machines that do the hard work. Soon, given improvements in AI and autonomous robots, we may not do much controlling either. We may just sit back and observe.

Should this pattern continue? Is space exploration, like so many other things nowadays, something that is best left to the machines? In this article, I want try to answer that question. I do so with the help of an article written by Keith Abney entitled “Robots and Space Ethics”. As we will see, Abney thinks that, with one potentially significant exception, we really should leave space exploration to the machines. Indeed, we might be morally obligated to do so. I’m sympathetic to what Abney has to say, but I still hold some hope for human space exploration.

1. Robots do it Better: Against Human Space Exploration
Why should we favour robotic space exploration over human space exploration? As you might imagine, the case is easy to state: robots are better at it. They are less biologically vulnerable. They do not depend on oxygen, or food, or water, or a delicate symbiotic relationship with a group of specially-evolved microorganisms, for their survival. They are less at risk from exposure to harmful solar radiation; they are less at risk from infection from alien microgranisms (a major plot point in HG Wells’s famous novel War of the Worlds). In addition to this, and as Abney documents, there are several major health risks and psychological risks suffered by astronauts that can be avoided through the use of robotic explorers (though he notes that the small number of astronauts makes studies of these risks somewhat dubious).

This is not to say that robots have no vulnerabilities and cannot be damaged by space exploration. They obviously can. Several space probes have been damaged beyond repair trying to land on alien worlds. They have also been harmed by space debris and suffered irrevocable harm due to general wear and tear. However, the problems encountered by these space probes just serve to highlight the risk to humans. It’s bad enough that probes have been catastrophically damaged trying to land on Mars, but imagine if it was a crew of humans? The space shuttle fatalities were major tragedies. They sparked rounds of recrimination and investigation. We don't want a repeat. All of this makes human space exploration both high risk and high cost. If we grant that humans are morally significant in a way that robots are not, then the costs of human space exploration would seem to significantly outweigh the benefits.

But how does this reasoning stack up against the arguments in favour of space exploration? Let’s start with the intellectual argument. The foremost defender of this argument is probably Ian Crawford. Although Crawford grants that robots are central to space exploration nowadays, he suggests that human explorers have advantages over robotic explorers. In particular, he suggests that there are kinds of in-person observation and experimentation that would be possible if humans were on space missions that just aren’t possible at the moment with robots. He also argues, more interestingly in my opinion, that space exploration would enhance human art and culture by providing new sources of inspiration for human creativity, and would also enhance political and ethical thinking because of the need to deal with new challenges and forms of social relation (for full details, see my summary here).

Although Abney does not respond directly to Crawford’s argument, he makes some interesting points that could be construed as a response. First, he highlights the fact that speculations about the intellectual value of human space exploration risk ignoring the fact that robots are already the de facto means by which we acquire knowledge of space. In other words, they risk ignoring the fact that without them, we would not have been able to learn as much about space as we have. Why would we assume that this trend will not continue? Second, he argues that claims to the effect that humans might be better at certain kinds of scientific investigation are usually dependent on the current limitations of robotic technology. As robotic technology improves, it’s quite likely that robots will be able to perform the kinds of investigations that we currently believe are only possible with human beings. We already see this happening here on Earth with more advanced forms of AI and robotics; it stands to reason that these advanced forms of AI can be used for space exploration too.

The bottom line then is that if our reasons for going to space our largely intellectual — i.e. to learn more about the cosmos and our place within it — then robots are the way to go. That said, there is nothing in what Abney says that deals with Crawford’s point about the intellectual gains in artistic, ethical and political thought. To appreciate those gains, it seems like it would have to be humans, not robots, that do the exploration. Perhaps one could respond to this by saying that some of these gains (most obviously the artistic ones) could come from watching and learning from robotic space missions; or that these intellectual gains are too nebulous or vague (what counts as an artistic gain?) to carry much weight; or that they come with significant risks that outweigh any putative benefits. For example, Crawford is probably correct to suggest that space exploration will prompt new ethical thinking, but that may largely be because it is so risky. Should we want to expose ourselves to those risks just so that philosophers can get their teeth into some new ethical dilemmas?

Let’s turn next to the more spiritual/utopian argument for space exploration. That argument focuses on the appeal of space exploration to the human spirit and the role that it could play in opening up the possibility of a dynamic and radically better future. Instead of being consigned to Earth, to tend the museum of human history (to co-opt Francis Fukuyama’s evocative phrase), we can forge a new future in space. We can expand the frontiers of human possibility.

This argument, much more so than the intellectual argument, seems to necessitate human participation in space exploration. Abney almost concedes as much in his analysis, but makes a few interesting points by way of response. First, he suggests that the appeal to the human spirit could be addressed by space 'tourism' and not space 'exploration'. In other words, we could look on human space travel as a kind of luxury good, and not something that we need to invest a lot of public money in. The public money, if it should go anywhere, should go to robotic space exploration only. Second, and relatedly, given the high cost of human space travel, any decision to invest money in it would have to factor in the significant opportunity cost of that investment. In other words, it would have to acknowledge that there are other, better, causes in which to invest. It would, consequently, be difficult to morally justify the investment. Third, he argues that, to the extent that human participation is deemed desirable, we should participate remotely, through immersive VR. This would be a lower cost and lower risk way for vulnerable beings like us to explore the further reaches of space.

I find this last suggestion intriguing. I imagine the idea is that we can satisfy our lust for visiting alien worlds or travelling to distant galaxies by using robotic avatars. We can hook ourselves up to these avatars using VR headsets and haptics, and really immerse ourselves in the space environment at minimal risk to our health and well-being. I agree that this would be a good way to do it, if it were feasible. That said, the technical challenges could be formidable. In particular, I think the time-lag between sending and receiving a signal between yourself and your robotic avatar would make it practically unwieldy. In the end, we might end up with little more than an immersive but largely passive space simulator. That doesn’t seem all that exciting.

2. The Interstellar Doomsday Argument
I mentioned at the outset that despite favouring robotic space exploration, Abney does think that there is one case in which human exploration might be morally compelling, namely: to avoid existential risk.

To be clear, Abney argues that robots can help us to mitigate many existential risks. For example, we could use autonomous robots to monitor and neutralise potential asteroid impacts, or to reengineer the climate in order to mitigate climate change. Nevertheless, he accepts that there is always the chance that these robotic efforts might fail (e.g. a rogue asteroid might leak through our planetary defence system) and Earth might get destroyed. What then? Well, if we had a human colony on another planet (or on an interstellar spaceship) there would be a chance of long-term human survival. Granting that we have a moral duty not to prevent the destruction of our species, it consequently seems to follow that we have a duty to invest in at least some human space exploration.

What’s more, Abney argues that we may have to do this sooner rather than later. This is where he makes his most interesting argument, something he calls the “Interstellar Doomsday Argument”. This argument applies the now-classic probability argument for “Doom Soon” to our thinking about the need for interstellar space exploration. This argument takes a bit of effort to understand, but it is worth it.

The classic Doomsday Argument, defended first by John Leslie and then championed by Nick Bostrom and others, claims that human extinction might be much closer in the future than we think. The argument works from some plausible initial assumptions and then applies to those assumptions some basic principles drawn from probability theory. I’m not going to explain the full thing (there are some excellent online primers about it, if you are interested) but I will give the gist of it. The idea is that, if you have no other background knowledge to tell you otherwise, you should assume that you are a randomly distributed member of the total number of humans that will ever live (this is the Copernican assumption or "self-sampling assumption"). You should also assume, if you have no background knowledge to tell you otherwise, that the distribution of the total number of humans that will ever live will follow a normal pattern. From this, you can conclude that you are highly unlikely to be at the extreme ends of the distribution (i.e. very near the start of the sequence of all humans; or very near the end). You can also conclude that there is highly probable upper limit on the total number of people who will ever live. If you play around with some of the background knowledge about the total human population to date and its distribution, you can generate reasonably pessimistic conclusions about how soon human extinction is likely to be.

That’s the gist of the original Doomsday Argument. Abney uses a variant on it, first set out by John Richard Gott in a paper in the journal Nature. Gott’s argument, using the standard tools of probability theory, applies to the observation of all temporally distributed phenomena, not just one’s distribution within the total population of humans who will ever live. The argument (called the “Delta t” argument) states that:

Gott’s Delta t Argument “[I]f there is nothing special about one’s observation of a phenomenon, one should expect a 95% probability that the phenomenon will continue for between 1/39 times and 39 times its present duration, as there’s only a 5% possibility that your random observation comes in the first 2.5% of its lifetime, or the last 2.5%” 
(Abney 2017, 364).

Gott originally used his argument to make predictions about how long the Berlin Wall was likely to stand (given the point in time at which he visited it), and how long a Broadway show was likely to remain open (give the point in time at which he watched it). Abney uses the argument to make predictions about how long humanity is likely to last as an interstellar species.

Abney starts with the observation that humanity first became an interstellar species sometime in August 2012. That was when the Voyager 1 probe (first launched in the 1970s) exited our solar system and entered interstellar space. Approximately seven years have elapsed since then (I’m writing this in 2019). Assuming that there is nothing special about the point in time at which I am “observing” Voyager 1’s interstellar journey, we can apply the Delta t argument and conclude that humanity’s status as an interstellar species is likely to last between (1/39 x 7 years) and (39 x 7 years). That means that there is a 95% chance that we have only got between 66 days and 273 years left of interstellar existence.

That should be somewhat alarming. It means that we don’t have as long we might think to escape our planet and address the existential risks of staying put. In fact, the conclusion becomes more compelling (and more alarming) if we combine the Doomsday argument with thoughts about the Great Silence and the Great Filter.

The Great Silence is the concern, first set out by Enrico Fermi, about the apparent absence of intelligent alien life in our galaxy. Fermi’s point was that if there is intelligent life out there, we would expect to have heard something from it by now. The universe is a big place but it has existed for a long time and if an intelligent species has any desire to explore it, it would have had ample time to do so by now. This has since been confirmed by calculations showing that if an intelligent species used robotic probes to explore the universe (specifically it used self-replicating Von Neumann probes) then it would only take a few hundred million years to ensure that every solar system had at least one such probe in it.

The Great Filter is the concern, first set out by Robin Hanson, about what it is that prevents intelligent species from exploring the universe and making contact with us. Working off Fermi’s worries about the Great Silence, Hanson argued that if intelligent life has not made contact with us yet (or left some sign or indication of its existence) then it must be because there is some force that prevents it from doing so. Either species tend not to evolve to the point that their intelligence enables them to explore space, or they destroy themselves when they reach a point of technological sophistication, or they just don’t last very long when they reach the interstellar phase (there are other possibilities too).

Whatever the explanation of the Great Silence and the Great Filter, the fact that there do not appear to be other interstellar species and we do not know why, should give us reason to think that our current interstellar status will be short-lived. That might tip the balance in favour of human space exploration.

Before closing, it is worth noting that Doomsday reasoning of the sort favoured by Abney is not without its critics. Several people have challenged and refined Gott’s argument of the years, and Olle Häggström argued that the Doomsday argument is fallacious, and an unfortunate blight on futurist thinking, in his 2016 book Here be Dragons.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

#58 - Neely on Augmented Reality, Ethics and Property Rights

erica neely

In this episode I talk to Erica Neely. Erica is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ohio Northern University specializing in philosophy of technology and computer ethics. Her work focuses is on the ethical ramifications of emerging technologies. She has written a number of papers on 3D printing, the ethics of video games, robotics and augmented reality. We chat about the ethics of augmented reality, with a particular focus on property rights and the problems that arise when we blend virtual and physical reality together in augmented reality platforms.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and a variety of other services (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:00 - What is augmented reality (AR)?
  • 5:55 - Is augmented reality overhyped?
  • 10:36 - What are property rights?
  • 14:22 - Justice and autonomy in the protection of property rights
  • 16:47 - Are we comfortable with property rights over virtual spaces/objects?
  • 22:30 - The blending problem: why augmented reality poses a unique problem for the protection of property rights
  • 27:00 - The different modalities of augmented reality: single-sphere or multi-sphere?
  • 30:45 - Scenario 1: Single-sphere AR with private property
  • 34:28 - Scenario 2: Multi-sphere AR with private property
  • 37:30 - Other ethical problems in scenario 2
  • 43:25 - Augmented reality vs imagination
  • 47:15 - Public property as contested space
  • 49:38 - Scenario 3: Multi-sphere AR with public property
  • 54:30 - Scenario 4: Single-sphere AR with public property
  • 1:00:28 - Must the owner of the single-sphere AR platform be regulated as a public utility/entity?
  • 1:02:25 - Other important ethical issues that arise from the use of AR

Relevant Links


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Understanding Hume on Miracles (Audio Essay)

This audio essay is an Easter special. It focuses on David Hume's famous argument about miracles. First written over 250 years, Hume's essay 'Of Miracles' purports to provide an "everlasting check" against all kinds of "superstitious delusion". But is this true? Does Hume give us good reason to reject the testimonial proof provided on behalf of historical miracles? Maybe not, but he certainly provides a valuable framework for thinking critically about this issue.

You can download the audio here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple, Stitcher and a variety of other podcatching services (the RSS feed is here).

This audio essay is based on an earlier written essay (available here). If you are interested in further reading about the topic, I recommend the following essays: