Friday, July 12, 2019

Automation, Space and Utopia: Making the Utopian Case for Space

[This is the extended text version of a lecture I delivered at the University of Otago, Dunedin on the 11th July 2019. As I explained to the audience, the lecture is a riff off my forthcoming book Automation and Utopia. That book is primarily about the impact of automating technologies on human social life, but does have one chapter that discusses space exploration. This lecture is a longer exploration of some of the themes raised in that chapter.]

When astronauts from Apollo 11 first set foot on the moon in July 1969, they left a message for future visitors. On a plaque appended to the ladder they used to descend to the surface, they inscribed the following words:

Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the Moon in July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.

The message remains there to this day, at 0.67408°N and 23.47297°E on the Sea of Tranquility.

The message is, in many ways, a noble one. The use of the word 'mankind' may raise an eyebrow or two nowadays, but overall the intention seems to be to highlight a common sense of human purpose and meaning, one that transcends the petty squabbles that pockmark our terrestrial history. What's more, I'm sure many of the people involved in the Apollo missions sincerely believed that message.

But it is, of course, a lie -- or at least a half truth. We did not set foot on the moon for noble or utopian reasons. We set foot on the moon because of those very petty terrestrial squabbles that the message proclaims to leave behind. The Apollo mission was a signal of American power, a way to beat the Soviets in the Cold War. When the victory was complete, the Apollo programme was disbanded, and subsequent 'manned'1 space missions have been far more limited in their aspirations.

The lesson of the Apollo programme thus seems to be an ambivalent one. Its utopian packaging hides a more cynical political core. It is no surprise then that subsequent proclamations of a human return to the Moon or a voyage to Mars have been greeted with suspicion. In this lecture, I want to reconsider this lesson of ambivalence and try to rehabilitate the utopian case for human space exploration.

I do so in four stages. First, I fast forward from the Apollo missions to the contemporary space race and examine its motivations through the lens of two of its most prominent spokespeople: Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Second, I distill from this discussion two basic arguments one can make in favour of human space exploration: (i) a necessitarian argument and (ii) a utopian argument. I argue that although space advocates often lean on the necessitarian argument, it faces some severe limitations and hence the utopian argument is the one we ought to be focusing on. Third, I try to make a compelling utopian argument. And fourth, and finally, I defend this argument from six objections.

1. The New Space Race: Musk versus Bezos
It would be wrong to suggest that contemporary space exploration is being led by the private sector. There is still a great deal of governmental and national investment in space exploration, noticeably among emerging superpowers such as China and India. Nevertheless, certain private actors have been doing a lot of public cheerleading about it and I want to speak about the visions of two of them: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

Musk has, perhaps, been the most public and the most prominent voice in the contemporary space race. Through his company SpaceX, he has made it his life's mission to build a human colony on Mars and so to create the infrastructure needed to make humanity a 'multiplanetary species'. Musk speaks about this project with passionate zeal and has inspired legions of equally passionate fans. Bezos has, until quite recently, been more taciturn, but the passion for space burns deep within him. Long before Amazon was a twinkle in his eye, Bezos was a devout 'space nerd' and spoke, during his valedictorian speech to his high school, of his desire to build human colonies in space. At present, through his company Blue Origin, he says he wants to build a 'road to space', one that will enable future generations to innovate in space like he and his contemporaries innovated on the internet. Unlike Musk, Bezos is not so keen on planetary colonization. He wants to build largescale orbiting space colonies, along the lines of what you can find in Neill Blomkamp's movie Elysium or in Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama book series.

Both men are inspired by earlier pioneers. In Musk's case, the influence of Werner van Braun's Das Marprojekt and Robert Zubrin's The Case for Mars can be readily discerned. Von Braun's work, originally written in 1946, is an impressively forward-looking piece of technical scientific speculation (whatever you might think of Von Braun's compromised association with the Nazis). Written before humans had launched anything successfully into space, it describes in detail how we could build an interplanetary spaceship (in orbit) and use this to travel to Mars. Zubrin's work is more recent (first published in 1996) and goes into detail on the technical and practical feasibility of building an actual colony on Mars. It's this book that probably served as the more proximate inspiration for Musk's work, though Musk and Zubrin have a slightly contentious relationship (the latter often criticising specific elements of the former's plans for Mars colonization).

In Bezos's case, the intellectual influence is much clearer and more direct. While at Princeton, Bezos was a student of Gerald O'Neill, the physicist and author of the ground-breaking book The High Frontier. First published in the 1970s, this book describes in vivid and fascinating detail how we could build orbiting space colonies. The book contains schematic blueprints for several such colonies. They all follow a common format. They consist of long hollow tubes (or spheres), on the inner surface of which we recreate a planetary surface. The tubes are then placed at optimal and human-friendly orbits around the sun, and set spin at a constant rate to recreate the effects of gravity. Inside, we can control the environment and the weather conditions and live pleasant, and recognisably human lives. This is preferred to the colonization of other planetary surfaces, which are often harsh and inhospitable to humans. In a public speech on May 9th 2019, Bezos has stated very clearly that his long-term goal is to make it possible for us to create such 'O'Neill colonies' in space. Some images from O'Neill's book and Bezos's talk are provided below. If they look familiar, they should. O'Neill's work has inspired many science fiction authors and movie directors, including the aforementioned Arthur C Clarke and Neil Blomkamp.

Screenshot from Jeff Bezo's talk at Blue Origin on 9 May 2019 

Original artwork from O'Neill's The High Frontier

Both Musk and Bezos are obsessed with the technical details of human space exploration. This is for obvious reasons: both men have engineering backgrounds and have made their fortunes out of their ability to build things. Furthermore, both are aware that we have been speculating about human space exploration for centuries, but unless it becomes technically possible there is little to be gained from this speculation. Although both disagree on the long-term visions, they are following similar technical pathways. For example, both agree that reducing the cost of spaceflight through reuseable rockets is the key first step to a human future in space. And both have made considerable technical progress towards this goal, Musk with the various Falcon rockets (images below) and Bezos with the New Shepard sub-orbital rocket and the forthcoming New Glenn orbital rocket. Both also aim to create a range of landing vehicles to get onto the surface of other planets and robotic rovers and similar devices for exploring and building on those surfaces.

The technical details of both projects are important but peripheral to the present discussion. I am not so much concerned with how Bezos and Musk plan to execute their visions, but rather with why they want to do it in the first place. Surprisingly enough, neither articulates this at any great length, but their views are reasonably clear.

Musk has said that building a colony on Mars is a human insurance policy -- a way of ensuring that humanity can continue in the aftermath of some existential catastrophe on Earth. Musk, as you may know, is something of a connoisseur of existential risks, voicing very publicly his concerns about climate change and artificial superintelligence. He thinks that if we want humanity to survive in the long-run, then we must become a multiplanetary species. Musk doesn't conceive of his Mars project in purely negative terms. He also thinks that the colonization of Mars will be a great adventure and inspiration for humanity, often expressing this view in the form of a rhetorical question (well it would be, wouldn't it?). Still, Musk is underwhelming when it comes to the justifications for his project. For example, his 2016 presentation on the case for making humanity a multiplanetary species is -- to be blunt -- cringeworthy and difficult to watch.

Bezos is much slicker and more articulate (as you might expect).2 His argument is an updating of the one made by O'Neill in The High Frontier. Like Musk, he is concerned about the long-term prospects for humanity. He argues that Earth is the 'best planet' in the solar system and that we need to protect it. Indeed, Bezos has coopted the language of Musk's critics and repeatedly emphasises the fact that there is no 'planet B'. But Bezos argues that we cannot protect Earth if we continue on our current trajectory. Our present way of life demands a lot of energy use. Indeed, increased energy use per capita is the hallmark of the civilisational progress we have made over the past three hundred years (in this, Bezos echoes the arguments made by Ian Morris in his book Why the West Rules for Now and The Measure of Civilization). The problem is that the Earth has a limited carrying capacity. So this progress cannot continue on Earth. We must migrate to space, and take full advantage of its abundant solar energy and other natural resources, to sustain our existence.

To be clear, Bezos does not make his argument in a purely negative tone. Far from it. His goal is not simply to conserve what we currently have but, rather, to ensure that it continues to grow and develop. He imagines a future in which trillions of humans populate space colonies and maintain a culture of 'dynamism and growth'. He says that such a large population could house a 1000 Einsteins and 1000 Mozarts. What wonders would they create to benefit us all? The question answers itself.

Although Musk and Bezos catch a lot of flack for their views, there is, I believe, something inspiring about they are doing. Still, it would be remiss of me not to highlight the cynical interpretation of what they are doing. Just as the Apollo programme was criticised for hiding its political motivations in some utopian packaging, so too are they criticised for hiding their personal ambition behind a smokescreen of inspiration. Critics argue that manned space exploration, of the sort desired by Musk and Bezos, is an indulgence we cannot afford -- a vanity project for two extremely wealthy men. They argue that projects of this sort detract attention away from what needs to be done here on earth, on initiatives that could alleviate the suffering of millions and help to avert climate catastrophe. They also question the desire to maintain a culture of growth and dynamism. This culture, they point out, is the root cause of our current problems. We need to focus instead on building a steady-state economy and making do with a 'zero growth' society. As such, they see what Musk and Bezos are doing as symptoms of the disease we need to fix. Even more cynically-minded critics, will argue that Musk and Bezos are in it for their own gain. Space colonies are an escape hatch for the 1% (or should that be 0.01%?), an insurance policy for themselves and their Silicon Valley friends, and a way of perpetuating inequality and suffering here on Earth.3

Is this right? Can we avoid the cynical interpretation of these projects? That's the question I want to answer in the remainder of my remarks.

2. Two Arguments for Manned Space Exploration
Bezos and Musk are not lone voices in the wilderness. There are many others constructing and evaluating arguments for manned space exploration. Indeed, there has been surge of interest in this topic in the recent philosophical literature 4. Still, for all their theoretical sophistication and nuance, these arguments come in two main forms, both of which are adopted by Musk and Bezos.

The first is the 'Necessitarian Argument'. According to this argument, humans must explore space, it is not something that is merely optional or desirable. There are a variety of stated reasons for this. Sometimes the focus is on escaping existential catastrophes like climate change or nuclear war or meteor strike or, in the very long term, the supernova that will envelop the Earth. Sometimes the focus is more on the duty to ensure the long-term survival of the human race (as well as other lifeforms).5 The philosopher Keith Abney, for example, has argued that if anything counts as a moral duty the duty to ensure human survival counts as a moral duty. This duty seems to necessarily entail future human space exploration.

The logic here is impeccable. We know for certain that our planet will be rendered uninhabitable by the Sun in a few billion years and will ultimately be engulfed by the Sun in 7.5 billion years. Before then, we can be reasonably confident that something terrible will happen to our planet (human-induced or otherwise) and that we will not be able to survive as a result. So if we want to survive over the long-run then it really does look like we must get off planet. Musk is right about this.

But this necessitarian argument has some serious limitations. For one thing, it is only truly compelling in the very long-run. The risks to which it ultimately appeals are nebulous and distant. Who knows what things will be like in 7.5 billion years? Will there even be a human race? Probably not. Since we have several billion years left to run down the clock, there is little reason to prioritise human space exploration right now. Indeed, doing so right now comes with a significant opportunity cost, as critics are keen to point out. It means we have to divert scarce resources from other projects which are both more urgent and more morally compelling. For instance, whatever you might think of billionaire philanthropy (and many people think little of it nowadays), I'm sure most of you would agree that Bill Gates's investment in vaccination and anti-malaria treatments in the developing world is a more compelling and morally necessary investment than Bezos's investment in a new moon lander.6 In addition to this, the claim that space exploration is somehow morally necessary in the short term seems quite cavalier and irresponsible in light of the risks that this poses to the astronauts and pioneers that will lead this initiative. Elon Musk would have a very hard time convincing me or anyone else that they have a moral obligation to be part of the first mission to Mars, given the risk this undoubtedly poses to human health and well-being. Participation in such a mission would have to be morally optional, not a matter of moral obligation.

Consequently, I think the necessitarian argument faces an uphill battle. It fails to be compelling or persuasive, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, I understand why people try to make it: if it worked, it would make the strongest possible case for human space exploration. It just doesn't work.

The other argument is the 'Utopian Argument'. According to this argument, human space exploration is desirable because it helps us to realise important human goods. In other words, if we go into space, we can live lives of meaning and purpose, and build a better future for ourselves and our offspring. The goods associated with space exploration include things like scientific discovery, knowledge, spiritual enlightenment, communalism, progress, dynamism and growth (the things Bezos emphasises in his case for space). This argument is weaker than the necessitarian argument. It does not claim that space exploration is obligatory or compulsory, merely that it is desirable -- an option that we should seriously consider exercising.

And yet, despite this, I find the utopian argument more appealing. It is a more hopeful and optimistic argument. It does not try to scare us with apocalyptic prognostications, nor bully us into accepting its conclusions. Rather, it invites us to consider what it means to be human and what is most conducive to our flourishing. Could it be that space exploration is exactly what we need to flourish? It is a tantalising thought and one that I will spend the remainder of this lecture developing.

3. Making the Utopian Argument
Before I get into the meat of the utopian argument, I need to confront an unwelcome fact. 'Utopia' is a dirty word. Very few people admit to being utopians nowadays. Indeed, even though I would argue that Bezos makes a utopian case for human space exploration, he disavows that terminology. Why is this?

The reason is that utopian political and social movements have acquired an unwelcome reputation. In some quarters they are viewed as naive and faintly ridiculous. A good example of this can be found in David Bramwell's satirical travelogue The No 9 Bus to Utopia which recounts his adventures visiting 'intentional communities' around the globe. Each of these communities espouses a certain vision of the good life (ranging from highly regimented, eco-friendly living to the more libertine world of wild sex parties and unchecked hedonism). Each of them comes off as kooky and unattractive. In other quarters, utopians are viewed as dangerous and malign. A good example of this can be found in Karl Popper's various essays on utopian political movements. Writing in the mid-20th century, Popper argued that fascism and communism were utopian political movements. They were both built around a 'blueprint' for the ideal society. The goal was to implement this blueprint. The problem, for Popper, was that not only were these blueprints flawed, they were also used as an excuse for violence. Those who could not be converted to the utopian cause had to be suppressed or eliminated. Their sacrifice was justified because once the blueprint was implemented all would be well. Popper argued that all utopian movements had this inherent tendency to justify great violence, irrespective of the blueprints they espoused. He argued that humans should consequently reject utopianism and instead focus on eliminating 'concrete evils' from society.

I have a lot of sympathy for Popper's view, but I still endorse a utopian outlook. This not because I think Popper's critique is wrong 7 but because I think there is a version of utopianism that is immune from his critique. Popper conflates utopianism with the view that there is a single, ideal blueprint that society ought to implement to realise the best of all possible worlds. It is true that classic utopian texts such as Plato's Republic and More's Utopia have this form, but very few modern utopianists endorse this understanding. H.G. Wells, for example, favoured a form of utopianism that was dynamic and adaptive, changing its vision of the good society in response to the latest technological and social trends. And Oscar Wilde, famously, argued that a utopian society was always 'on the horizon'. In other words, we never arrive at the ideal society we always just try get better and better.

The philosopher Christopher Yorke, in homage to Wilde, refers to this as the 'horizonal' model of utopianism. This is the version of utopianism I endorse. According to it, the key insight of utopian thinking lies not in coming up with carefully prescribed plans for the ideal society, but rather in (a) recognising that human society could be much better than it currently is and (b) figuring out how to make this possibility a reality. As such, utopianism is best thought of as an anti-conservative philosophy of social reform, one that is committed to continual exploration of the horizons of possibility.

There is still the danger that this horizonal understanding of utopianism could be used to support violence and suppression of dissent. But we can safeguard against this in two ways. First, we can recognise that there is unlikely to be a single radically better future for humanity. There is much more likely to be a plurality of radically better futures. We should respect that plurality and not commit ourselves to taking any one trajectory through the set of possible futures. Second, we can build 'anti-violence' conditions into our definition of utopianism. This is something that Christopher Yorke does in his work, arguing that since there is no final end state toward which humanity must aim, there is no end state that can justify the means of violence. Instead, all utopian projects must respect and protect the rights of individuals not to be harmed in their wake. 8

With this revised understanding of utopianism in mind, it is possible to make the utopian argument for human space exploration. We do this by arguing that human space exploration is conducive to continual improvement of the human condition, and is hence consistent with the aim of horizonal utopianism. There are three ways in which to make this argument.

The first is to appeal directly to the link between space exploration and expanding horizons. If the purpose of horizonal utopianism is to keep the frontiers of human possibility open, then it seems like committing to the project of space exploration is an obvious way to do this. After all, we have few horizons left to explore here on earth. Humanity has conquered the four corners of the globe9. We have set up human societies and outposts in the harshest environments and we have made it possible for humans to live and, in most cases, thrive in those environments. There are, to paraphrase Alexander the Great, no lands left for us to conquer. If we continue with our Earthbound existence, we must make our peace with a fixed horizon10. If we expand into space, the horizon opens up once more. In fact, space provides us with a near infinite frontier of possibility. The ideal playground for the horizonal utopianist.

Of course this isn't quite true. There are still some geographical horizons left to explore on Earth -- the deep ocean, for example, remains relatively free from human occupation -- and there are other metaphorical horizons that we could continue to explore with an Earthbound existence -- for example, we could explore 'virtual' environments, or new forms of biological existence through genetic engineering and bioenhancement. But even if space exploration is not the only way to ensure a continued horizon of possibility, it is at least one way in which to do this and hence is consistent with the ethos of horizonal utopianism.

Note how this first argument does not appeal to any particular conception of the good life. It does not claim that the lives we will live in space will be radically better than the lives we live on Earth. The second argument makes up for this omission by arguing that not only does human space exploration allow for a continued horizon of possibility, it also allows for a better existence by helping to realise certain human goods. I mentioned several of these already when I introduced the utopian argument earlier and, indeed, there are many different ways of making this second argument, each one varying depending on the good to which you appeal. For example, you could argue that human space exploration is utopian because it enables a radically better form of human freedom, perhaps because it allows pioneering space colonies to determine their own fates free from the interference of Earthbound governments. In this sense, human space exploration could be deemed utopian for the same reason that classic American frontierism was thought to be utopian. I'll return to this idea a little later on, for now I want to make a different argument that appeals to a different set of goods.

To be precise, I want to argue that human space exploration is utopian because it allows for the continued realisation of intellectual goods (such as scientific discovery, artistic creation, philosophical insight). This argument has been made eloquently and relentlessly by the astrophysicist Ian Crawford. Crawford makes two key points. The first is that even if an Earthbound existence does not necessarily lead to intellectual stagnation, it will be more likely to do so than a space-oriented one. Unless we have new experiences or encounter new phenomena, our intellectual lives will tend to be relatively monotonous and uninventive. We might refine ideas and theories, but not truly innovate. A good analogy here might be the stagnation we currently see in the movie industry: instead of coming up with genuinely new ideas we have to make do with endless, formulaic sequels and movie franchises. If we stay put on Earth, then we will tend to have the same experiences and encounter the same phenomena over and over again. The second point is that space exploration will allow us to avoid intellectual stagnation. Through space exploration we will make new discoveries about the universe and our place within it; we will encounter new phenomena and react to them in interesting and unexpected ways. This will enable us to innovate in three distinct ways: (i) it will enable us to develop our scientific theories of how the universe works; (ii) it will enable (and indeed force) us to develop new models of ethical and political thought to cope with the challenges of extra-terrestrial existence and (iii) it will give us the raw material to develop new forms of artistic expression and invention.11

You might wonder whether this argument (and the previous one) are essentially the same as Jeff Bezos's 'dynamism and growth' argument. There are certainly similarities between them, but there are also important differences. Bezos's argument appeals to the continued growth and expansion of the human race and the human economy. He envisages a future in which there are trillions of humans gobbling up the energy of the sun in the interests of growth and innovation. I do not. Keeping the horizons of possibility open, and enabling continued intellectual innovation does not require or entail continued growth in the human population or in human energy capture. That may happen, but it doesn't have to happen. In other words, the utopian arguments I am putting forward are, at least in principle, compatible with sustainable or steady-state models of economic development.

This brings me to the third argument. This one is a little bit more technical and philosophical. Earlier, I mentioned that horizonal utopianists should embrace a plurality of better futures. In other words, they shouldn't insist on one single best possible future but rather tolerate and, if possible, enable different pathways to a better future. This is a point that Robert Nozick made much of when he discussed utopianism in his 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia. For some reason, the first two thirds of this book, in which Nozick criticises Rawlsian egalitarianism and endorses minimal state libertarianism, are much more widely read than the last third in which he discusses utopianism. This is a shame since Nozick's analysis of utopianism is both insightful and original. In rough outline, Nozick argues that there is no single utopian society because different people weight and prioritise different goods. Consequently, classic, blueprint utopianism is doomed to failure. Instead, Nozick argues that the ideal society will be one that allows each individual to pick and choose the form of social life that they most prefer. In other words, the ideal society won't be a single society at all but, rather, a society-generating mechanism that allows people to create communities that prioritise and favour the values that they prioritise and favour. Nozick refers to this society-generating mechanism as the 'meta-utopia'.

There are different ways in which we might build a meta-utopia. Nozick himself argues, unsurprisingly, that a constitutional order that endorses minimal state libertarianism is most consistent with the meta-utopian ideal. But this faces some obvious limitations, particularly if applied to humans living on the planet Earth. Since there is a limited territory in which people can create and implement their preferred communities, there is likely to be ongoing conflict and tension, which will actually require a lot of state intervention to police and control. For this reason, in my forthcoming book, I argue that virtual reality might provide the ideal environment in which to implement a meta-utopia.

But space could also provide such an environment. Indeed, this is effectively what Gerald O'Neill envisaged in his book The High Frontier. He argued that each O'Neill colony would be its own self-contained community, following and implemented its own preferred conception of the ideal society, officially under the control of a single agency that grants licences to build and create these colonies. Since it is, at least in principle, possible to create a vast number of O'Neill colonies (even if we limit ourselves to this solar system) we have here a way of realising Nozick's vision of the meta-utopia. What's more, this vision is fully compatible with the horizonal model of utopianism because it allows for continued innovation in modes of social existence.

4. Objections and Replies
This utopian argument for human space exploration is unlikely to be persuasive in and of itself. It only becomes persuasive if it can offer credible replies to the many potential objections one might have to it. I will close this lecture by considering six such objections.

(A) The Opportunity Cost Objection
The first objection is our old friend the opportunity cost objection. This objection maintains that it would be irresponsible to waste resources on human space exploration given the many other pressing demands on those scarce resources. We encountered this objection earlier when discussing the views of Bezos and Musk, and I gave it some weight when criticising the necessitarian argument. My point there was that if we are claiming that space exploration is morally necessary than we run into the problem that there are many other things that are morally necessary and there is no reason to think that space exploration is the most morally necessary thing to do. But now that we have switched gears to the utopian argument, I think it is worth reconsidering its merits.

The opportunity cost objection faces two basic problems. First, if we take it seriously, then it seems we must also take seriously the problem of moral demandingness. This is the problem that if we want to live truly morally unobjectionable lives, then we have to accept that a lot of what we currently do is morally questionable. Those of us who live in developed economies and have comfortable jobs undoubtedly appropriate more resources for ourselves than we truly deserve. We should be donating far more of our time and money to good causes. This is true at an individual level, and at a societal level. In fact, if we think about it, an awful lot of what we do is morally indulgent: owning a car, a smartphone, or a centrally heated home, reading books, studying philosophy, attending lectures like this (and so on), all of it is a waste of moral resources. There is so much more we could be doing.

Now, some people do take this style of thinking seriously, but when they do they end somewhere rather unpleasant. As Susan Wolf points out in her widely-discussed essay 'Moral Saints', people who dedicate themselves to living the morally best life, live pretty unpleasant and inhuman lives. They can never relax or take a moment for themselves; they must always push themselves to the limits of what is morally possible. They may live morally praiseworthy lives, but they don't live morally flourishing lives. Given this, it's not clear that we should take the opportunity cost objection too seriously. If we do, we will never be able to dedicate the time and attention we need to making possible for people to live flourishing lives. We will always be trying to avoid moral catastrophe.

Second, even if we do take the opportunity cost objection seriously, it's not clear why investment in human space exploration should attract so much ire. We waste scarce resources on many other highly objectionable projects: militarisation, deforestation, the latest Avengers movie. If we are looking to cut back, and invest resources in better causes, I suggest we take money from those projects first. Indeed, taking money from those projects and investing in space exploration may be the morally preferable thing to do, if space exploration has the utopian potential that I outlined above.

(B) The Impossibility/Impracticality Objection
The second objection is that human space exploration is impossible, or, at the very least, highly impractical. Space is dark and dangerous and humans were not built for it. We evolved to live on one planet. Once we escape the protective atmosphere of our home planet, we become highly vulnerable to solar radiation and other space-based threats to human life. It is for this very reason that many scientists prefer sending machines/robots to space instead of humans. They are much less vulernable to these extra-terrestrial threats and so much more cost effective. Using this logic, some philosophers, such as Keith Abney, have argued that we are only ever morally justified in sending machines to space.

There are three responses to this objection. First, it could be argued that enhancing the existential robustness of the human body is going to be part and parcel of the project of getting us into space. Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, in a famous essay in which they coined the term 'cyborg', made this very point before any human being had been successfully launched into space. They argued that the cyborgisation of the humanity was the best long-term approach to getting humans into space. This was because if could we turn ourselves into machines, then we could become better adapted to life in space (though, to be clear, we could not remove all existential vulnerabilities, as is clear from the history of the machines we have sent to space).

Second, there could be technical fixes to space habitats that enable us to live more securely and safely in space. We already have some success in this regard, with several human beings having spent extended periods of time in the International Space Station. We can build upon this by building more human-friendly space habitats. Gerald O'Neill had several proposals for creating radiation shields in his colonies that might work. At the very least, there are possibilities that are worth exploring and it should not be assumed in advance that long term living in space is a practical impossibility.

Third, it may be possible for humans to get many of the benefits of space exploration without leaving the planet. We could do this by exploring space through robotic avatars. In other words, we could allow the robots to brace the harsh environment of space and transmit their experiences to us through virtual reality headsets and haptic suits. We could then remotely control what they are doing, and have a fully immersive experience of space exploration. This would, obviously, be a technologically limited solution. The vastness of space means that teleoperation of robotic avatars is not really feasible beyond near-earth orbit. But, again, this is a possibility worth exploring and one that could help us to realise some of the utopian potential of space.

(C) The Other Horizons Objection
The third objection concedes that human space exploration is consistent with horizonal utopianism but then counters that it isn't the only project that is consistent with horizonal utopianism. We could, as I already mentioned, explore the horizons of biological form through bioenhancement, or explore new forms of life through virtual reality. In fact, so the objection goes, mightn't we be better off exploring these horizons in lieu of space? After all, space exploration is a dangerous game. If we are going to invest time and energy in any utopian projects, shouldn't we invest in the ones that have the highest chance of success?

This objection has some merit. In fact, I end up endorsing a version of it in my forthcoming book Automation and Utopia, but I would make two points in response to it here. First, it's not obvious that we couldn't invest in all these projects at the same time: indeed, spreading ourselves across different projects is arguably more consistent with the ethos of horizonal utopianism. Second, we probably shouldn't think of these projects as substitutes for one another. On the contrary, we should probably think of them as complements to one another. By pursuing one we could improve our chances of pursuing the other. I already made the point that the cyborgisation of the human condition could be part and parcel of the project of space exploration; likewise, improvements in virtual reality technology could be exactly what we need to explore space through robotic avatars.

(D) The Dehumanisation/Fragmentation Objection
The fourth objection is that by expanding into space we will erode our common sense of humanity. This is because we will fragment and splinter into different communities and colonies, and we will form an irreparable rift between the Earthbound and the spacebound. Although she was entirely clear about it, this seems to have been one of Hannah Arendt's major objections to human exploration.12 Arendt worried that moving beyond the earth would result in the loss of a shared history and shared community, and would lead to the de-centering of humankind.

Although expressed in somewhat nebulous language, this objection strikes me as a serious one. We live in an age of political polarisation and fragmentation. Through the wonders of digital technology and algorithmic mediation, we have sorted ourselves into echo chambers and filter bubbles. We are consequently losing a sense of solidarity and common purpose. We see the negative effects of this every day in our political discourse and social interactions. There is reason to worry that space exploration will exacerbate this tendency. This is particularly problematic for me, given that some of the utopian potential I see in space exploration lies in its ability to enable the creation of fragmented and self-contained space colonies (cf. the meta-utopian argument).

Still, there are a few things I would say by way of response. First, at least when viewed in the light of history, Arendt's fear seems to be misplaced. Every past expansion of human settlement could have been rejected on the grounds that it would lead to the fragmentation and de-centering of the relevant human society. For example, the expansion of European settlements from the Renaissance period onwards could have been rejected on the grounds that it would lead to the fracturing of national or European identity and solidarity. And yet this doesn't appear to have happened. On the contrary, as much as you might dislike it, these historical expansions seem to have reinforced a common sense of national and European identity. Second, at least in the short term, there is reason to hope that a concerted effort at human space exploration will be unifying rather than polarising. It will, after all, require a lot of collective effort to make human space exploration and settlement a technical possibility. Many of the people involved in the Apollo missions have said that they found the experience to be incredibly inspiring because they were banding together with like-minded souls and contributing to a common endeavour. Is it impossible for us to recapture some of that spirit? In this light, a project of human space exploration may be exactly what we need to suck us out of our filter bubbles, and avoid the worst excesses of polarisation and fragmentation.

(E) The Hobbesian War Objection
The fifth objection is that human space exploration and settlement will set up the ideal conditions for a 'Hobbesian war' in space. This is an argument that has been made forcefully by Phil Torres.13 Taking his inspiration from Thomas Hobbes, Torres argues that fragmented space settlements are likely to develop distinctive ideologies and, in the extreme, may even evolve into separate species. Because of this they will grow suspicious of one another and worry about the possibility of other settlements attacking them and taking away what they have built for themselves. They will consequently be tempted to launch pre-emptive attacks to preserve themselves, which could quickly lead to an all out space war. On Earth, we prevent this collapse into anarchy by creating strong centralised governments that keep the peace (a 'Leviathan' to use the Hobbesian terminology). The problem, according to Torres, is that it will be practically impossible to create and maintain a Leviathan-like order across the vast distances of space. The speed of communication and travel between space settlements will make it very difficult to police and enforce the peace. Torres takes this reasoning to some extreme places, suggesting that in the end space settlements might create some apocalyptic weaponry that make nuclear weapons look like firecrackers. This then leads him to conclude that every minute that we delay human exploration is a good minute.

There are at least three things worth saying in response to this. First, Torres relies on some highly speculative reasoning when considering what will happen in space settlements and what kinds of weapons they will develop and have access to. While this speculation may turn out to be correct, it should be treated with due scepticism and weighed appropriately against more optimistic speculation. Second, several of the assumptions that Torres makes can be challenged. For example, his claim that space settlements will grow suspicious of one another and be motivated to launch preemptive attacks is questionable. Quite the opposite could be the case. Good fences make for good neighbours and it is hard to imagine a better fence that the cold expanse of space. Similarly, Torres claim that it will be impossible to create a Leviathan in space is probably only true if human space settlements are widely separated. If we implement the O'Neill/Bezos vision of orbiting space colonies, the distances will be much more human-friendly and hence much more conducive to policing and enforcing the peace. Third, it's also worth weighing the risks of space settlement against the risks of staying put on Earth. Although I have tried to avoid making this argument throughout this lecture, human existence could be threatened if we stay here on Earth, either due to dwindling resources or climate change, and this could also provide the ideal conditions for conflict and strife. Even if space exploration also carries a risk of conflict, we may be better off running that risk.

(F) The Tyranny Objection
The sixth and final objection is that life in space would be unpleasant because the governments in space settlements will have to be tyrannical and to seriously curb human freedom. This objection has been made, at considerable length, by the astrobiologist Charles Cockell 14. Cockell makes quite a number of interesting arguments but his core argument is this: a tyrannical government is one that interferes with its citizens (e.g. by limiting their behaviour and punishing them if they step out of line). Citizens have certain strategies they can exercise in response to this tyranny: (i) they can acquiesce to the interference, i.e. they can align their preferences with the government's preferences; (ii) they can take the Stoic retreat, i.e. ignore the outside interference and try to achieve inner peace of mind; (iii) they can protest or rebel against the government and (iv) they can physically escape from the clutches of the government. Of these, arguably only the last two are consistent with maintaining human freedom in the face of tyranny. Cockell then argues that in these strategies will not be available to the citizens of tyrannical governments. In fact, of the four strategies, the one that citizens are most likely to exercise is the first: i.e. acquiescence to the demands of tyrannical governments.

Why is this? The problem, as Cockell sees it, is twofold. First, the habitats we establish in space will be fragile and vulnerable things. For example, any damage to the the oxygen supply on a Mars colony could be fatal to all the humans living there. Second, as a result of this, the Mars government will have to police and enforce a very strict set of rules to prevent any damage or sabotage to its life supply system. In fact, it's not just that. They will also probably have to ensure that every member of the colony plays a part in maintaining those life supply systems.15 There is little room for dissidence or rebelliousness. As Cockell puts it, these space societies will tend to be highly collectivist, not individualist. Any individual who finds themselves as odds with the government will have limited scope for expressing their views. They cannot escape the colony because they would die outside its protective enclosure; they cannot protest or rebel because the government will act quickly to stamp out protest and rebellion; and they cannot beat a Stoic retreat because meditative equanimity is a luxury that cannot be afforded when an entire community is living on the knife-edge. So they will be forced to acquiesce. The result is a significant loss of freedom and a dulling of individuality.

I think Cockell is right to explore the unwelcome features of future space governments, but there are several things to be said in response to his critique. First, it is worth noting that at least some people will find the collectivist nature of space colonies uplifting and inspiring. They will like the idea of banding together towards a common set of purposes an advantage, not a disadvantage of such an existence. Second, Cockell paints life in space in the worst possible light. It's not clear that things will be as bad as he supposes. For example, life inside a space habitat may not be as fragile as he claims, nor need it be impossible for someone to escape the colony. A future in which there are thousands of O'Neill colonies in near-Earth orbit may allow for easy transport back and forth between different colonies. Furthermore, the vulnerability to which Cockell appeals is largely a function of our biological form. If we end up exploring space in a non-biological/cyborg form, then this may not be an issue. Finally, as Cockell himself notes, freedom is complex value, not a simple one. None of us is ever perfectly free. Instead, we must trade different dimensions and forms of freedom (e.g. positive and negative) off against each other. It's quite possible that space exploration may help us to maximise some forms of freedom, while forcing us to compromise on others.

5. Conclusion
So where does that leave us? I doubt I have eliminated all the cynicism from your souls, but I hope I have at least encouraged you to take the utopian potential of human space exploration more seriously.

  1. I'll use the word 'manned' spaceflight throughout this lecture in order to distinguish the kind of space exploration in which I am interested from space exploration conducted primarily by robots or machines. I use 'manned' in preference to 'crewed' (which is one non-sexist alternative) because in spoken form 'crewed' is a homonym of 'crude' and so might create a misleading impression among those who are listening ↩︎
  2. All details of Bezos's view come from his May 2019 presentation at Blue Origin, readily available on youtube ↩︎
  3. This is the vision of the future one finds in Neil Blomkamp's Elysium: wealthy elites live in fancy O'Neill colonies while the masses suffer on the planet's surface ↩︎
  4. See for example Milligan, T. (2015). Fear of Freedom: The Legacy of Arendt and Ballard’s Space Skepticism. In The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth (pp. 33–45). Cham: Springer, Cham.; and Schwartz, J. S. (2016). Our Moral Obligation to Support Space Exploration. Environmental Ethics, 1–22; Schwartz, J. S. J. (2014). Prioritizing scientific exploration: A comparison of the ethical justifications for space development and for space science. Space Policy, 30(4), 202–208. ↩︎
  5. For examples of this, see the articles by Schwartz 2011, Abney 2017 and Ketcham 2016 ↩︎
  6. This isn't entirely fair to Bezos. Although Bezos was criticised for his relative lack of philanthropy until recent times, he has responded to those criticisms and in fact became the top US philanthropist in 2018, focusing mainly on educational philanthropy. See ↩︎
  7. Although I do think it is flawed for reasons I set out in my forthcoming book Automation and Utopia ↩︎
  8. Yorke says that this means all utopian projects should ensure that no one is made worse off in the process of societal reform, but this could be very difficult to guarantee in practice and indeed may end being dangerously close the conservative position he and other horizonal utopianists seek to avoid. ↩︎
  9. This is an odd idiomatic phrase but I presume the contradiction is a deliberate witticism ↩︎
  10. This is an argument I take from Christopher Yorke. ↩︎
  11. Crawford's argument is good deal more elaborate than this. He identifies specific forms of scientific knowledge we are likely to acquire and develops a theory of artistic innovation based on Karl Poppers 'three worlds' model of human existence. Roughly, Crawford argues that artistic innovation always arises as a result of an interaction between the mind (world 2) and the environment around it (world 1). If the mind has new experiences, it can develop new artistic constructs (world 3). The same basic theory applies to the development of new ethical and political theories ↩︎
  12. I owe this interpretation of Arendt to Tony Milligan ↩︎
  13. Torres, P. (2018). Space colonization and suffering risks_ Reassessing the “maxipok rule.” Futures, 100, 74–85. ↩︎
  14. See his book Extra-Terrestrial Liberty (Edinburgh: Shoving Leopard 2013) ↩︎
  15. Relatedly, Gerald O'Neill, in The High Frontier envisaged a national service equivalent for all members of space colonies ↩︎

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

#62 - Häggström on AI Motivations and Risk Denialism


In this episode I talk to Olle Häggström. Olle is a professor of mathematical statistics at Chalmers University of Technology and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (KVA) and of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA). Olle’s main research is in probability theory and statistical mechanics, but in recent years he has broadened his research interests to focus applied statistics, philosophy, climate science, artificial intelligence and social consequences of future technologies. He is the author of Here be Dragons: Science, Technology and the Future of Humanity (OUP 2016). We talk about AI motivations, specifically the Omohundro-Bostrom theory of AI motivation and its weaknesses. We also discuss AI risk denialism.

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

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 2:02 - Do we need to define AI?
  • 4:15 - The Omohundro-Bostrom theory of AI motivation
  • 7:46 - Key concepts in the Omohundro-Bostrom Theory: Final Goals vs Instrumental Goals
  • 10:50 - The Orthogonality Thesis
  • 14:47 - The Instrumental Convergence Thesis
  • 20:16 - Resource Acquisition as an Instrumental Goal
  • 22:02 - The importance of goal-content integrity
  • 25:42 - Deception as an Instrumental Goal
  • 29:17 - How the doomsaying argument works
  • 31:46 - Critiquing the theory: the problem of self-referential final goals
  • 36:20 - The problem of incoherent goals
  • 42:44 - Does the truth of moral realism undermine the orthogonality thesis?
  • 50:50 - Problems with the distinction between instrumental goals and final goals
  • 57:52 - Why do some people deny the problem of AI risk?
  • 1:04:10 - Strong versus Weak AI Scepticism
  • 1:09:00 - Is it difficult to be taken seriously on this topic?


Relevant Links


Thursday, June 27, 2019

Welcoming Robots into the Moral Circle: A Defence of Ethical Behaviourism

Marvin, the Paranoid Android

I just published a new paper in Science and Engineering Ethics. The paper is my first extended defence of a position called 'ethical behaviourism'. This is a principle/theory that can be applied to debates about the moral status of disputed entities (e.g. animals or artificial beings). I first talked about this principle on this blog a couple of years back (though I don't claim that it is original to me). I am grateful to have the chance to defend it at greater length in this article. As per usual, you can download a free preprint of the paper at the various links below.

Title: Welcoming Robots in the Moral Circle: A Defence of Ethical Behaviourism
Journal: Science and Engineering Ethics
Links: Official; Philpapers; Researchgate; Academia
Abstract: Can robots have significant moral status? This is an emerging topic of debate among roboticists and ethicists. This paper makes three contributions to this debate. First, it presents a theory – ‘ethical behaviourism’ – which holds that robots can have significant moral status if they are roughly performatively equivalent to other entities that have significant moral status. This theory is then defended from seven objections. Second, taking this theoretical position onboard, it is argued that the performative threshold that robots need to cross in order to be afforded significant moral status may not be that high and that they may soon cross it (if they haven’t done so already). Finally, the implications of this for our procreative duties to robots are considered, and it is argued that we may need to take seriously a duty of ‘procreative beneficence’ towards robots. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Giving Talks: Thirteen Tips from a Conference Nihilist

There is a famous Seinfeld joke about public speaking. It's based on an old opinion poll result that reported that people fear public speaking more than death. Seinfeld used this to make the wry observation that the next time you are at a funeral you should reflect on the fact that the person giving the eulogy would rather be in the coffin.

Suffice to say, I don't feel that way about public speaking. I have many social anxieties but speaking in front of a large (or small) audience is not one of them.1 That's not to say I'm any good at it, of course. But I have at least done a lot of it and grown accustomed to its rhythms and its demands. Furthermore, I have learned from the mistakes that I have made over the years so that even if I amn't particularly good at it, I am at least better than I used to be.

This is all by way of justifying what you are about to read. I get asked quite often for advice on giving talks (by students) and I am frustrated that I have still not got around to formalising my thoughts on the matter. What follows is my first attempt to do so. If you are in a hurry and are just interested in reading my 'tips' on how to give a talk, then you can find them summarised in the poster that accompanies the text. If you have more time, and are willing to tolerate the occasional diversion, then I hope you will read the full thing because I'm not just going to explain the methods I follow when giving talks, I'm also going to reflect on things I love and hate about the process, give some rants about academic conferences, consider the larger purpose and philosophy behind the practice of giving talks.

As always, what follows is my own take on things. I am not claiming that the things I find useful when giving talks will be useful to others, or that I have undertaken a detailed survey of the evidence concerning what works and doesn't. I'm just distilling the lessons I have learned from my own experiences. This means, inevitably, that my reflections are geared toward giving academic-style presentations. I have some experience giving other kinds of talks too, so I hope what I say is of more general interest. I'll include links to examples of talks I have given along the way and I will also include several as an appendix at the end.

For ease of analysis, I am going to structure the discussion around a timeline that corresponds to the major steps involved in preparing and delivering a talk. The timeline is illustrated below along with the 'tips' that correspond to each step in the timeline. As you can see, it starts at the point in time at which you accept an invite to give a presentation, then proceeds through to preparation, delivery and follow-up. The preparation step is, proportionally, the longest and this is because I think it is the most important.

1. The Invite or Acceptance
The journey to a talk starts when you accept an invite to give one. This will either be because you have deliberately sought an invitation (e.g. by submitting a paper to a conference) or because someone contacts you out of the blue asking you if you would be interested in giving one. The former is common early in an academic career; the latter common later in a career.

When I was young and eager to establish myself, I accepted all invitations to give talks without hesitation (assuming I could afford the travel or someone else was going to pay for it). Nowadays, I take a bit more time reflecting on whether it is something I really want to do. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that preparing a talk takes a lot of time (or, at least, it should take a lot of time) and I need to figure out whether I have that time to spare. But that's only part of the picture. There are other, less practical and more existential, reasons that loom larger for me now.

I have developed quite a cynical attitude toward academic conferences and gatherings over the years. Academic conferences are strange affairs. They are made up of hordes of earnest scholars gathering together in brightly-lit meeting rooms and poorly-catered conference suites, to speak at each other in 10-20 minute timeslots. Most of the talks are poorly attended and poorly delivered. The speakers assume that their audiences are interested in what they are saying. The attendees repay this assumption by appearing bored and listless, busily scrolling through their phones or checking email from their real jobs back home.

Having attended dozens of these events over the years, I have turned into something of a 'conference nihilist', at least when it comes to the talks delivered at them (I'll say more about the social aspects of conferences later on). I think conference talks generate a lot of sound and fury but ultimately signify nothing. I see them as a holdover from a bygone era. At one point in time, attending conferences and listening to papers may have been the only way to 'keep in touch' with what was happening in your field. It also may have been the only way to contribute and get attention for the work that you do. I read nowadays of the lore surrounding the Solvay conferences on quantum physics in the early part of the 20th century and they sound like exciting affairs. Groundbreaking work was presented and debated, and the frontier of human knowledge was expanded.

I have never attended a conference like that. It seems to me to be clearly no longer true that attending conferences is essential to academic work. I can access more working papers and preprints than I have time to read at the click of a button, and I can interact with and solicit feedback from academics all over the world from the comfort of my home. Indeed, the experience of reading, writing and deliberating over ideas from the comfort of my home is usually (though not always) superior to the experience I get at a conference. So I have really started to question the value of attending and participating.

My commitment to conference nihilism tends to vary depending on the size of the event. Very large conferences tend to generate the most profound sense of nihilism. I'm talking here about conferences with hundreds (maybe even thousands) of attendees where your talk takes place in one of half a dozen parallel streams. At such an event, your contribution will feel like a small drop in a large ocean: you'll be lucky if anyone notices a ripple. Smaller events generate less nihilistic feelings. My sweetspot is the 'workshop' with 15-20 participants, each of whom is given a decent amount of time to talk, and all of whom are curious and interested in what the others have to say. But sometimes those events are lacklustre too because they are poorly organised and poorly run. An event where I am the sole speaker (e.g. a guest seminar or lecture) can seem quite attractive and less nihilistic on paper, but my experience of these is mixed too. Guest seminars and guest lectures are often poorly attended (maybe it's just me?) and having organised a few myself, I know that there is sometimes a desperate, last-minute attempt to get 'bodies in the room'. This means attendees are less engaged and interested than you initially suspect and the talk can generate less useful discussion as a result.

All of this might make it sound as though I hate giving talks and I am blame others for the nihilistic nature of academic conferences - as though the problems all stem from the organisation, format and attendees, and not from the speaker and their inability to say anything interesting or valuable. That's not the case. As you'll see below, I do think you can enjoy the process of giving talks, and I do think the speaker has a heavy burden to discharge: they have to try to make their talk as good as possible. My point here is simply that before you accept an invitation to give a talk you have to know what you are getting yourself into. You have to realise that most talks, at most events, are relatively pointless. You have to embrace that pointlessness.

In this sense, conference nihilism can be quite liberating. Once you acknowledge that most conferences are nihilistic affairs, you are freed from the ordinary expectations and obligations associated with attending and delivering talks at them. You are free to shape your own conference destiny, at least to some extent, by being a little more picky and selective in what you are doing.

In this respect, I have three 'tips' when it comes to accepting invitations to give talks:

  • Don't over-leverage yourself: Don't accept too many invitations to give too many talks. Only agree to do as many as you feel able to do to the best of your ability. This is a lesson I have learned the hard way. Realising that most talks I give won't change the intellectual landscape, or be life-changing or career-shaping, gives me the courage to be more selective.

  • Limit expectations: Don't expect too much from the process or experience of giving a talk. Don't be surprised if no one attends, or seems to care about what you have said. Make sure you are comfortable with that possibility before accepting.

  • Focus on the process not the outcomes: Before accepting ask yourself whether you will enjoy the process of preparing and delivering the talk. Is it going to be on a topic that you want to talk about? Will you enjoy the challenge of preparing and refining the talk? If so, do it. If not, and if you see the talk as a stepping stone to future success, maybe reconsider.

There are other reasons to accept an invitation too. Sometimes I accept invitations because it allows me to visit a place I have never visited, or meet up with people I would like to meet up with, but these reasons have become less compelling as I have aged. I find that the obligation of preparing and delivering a talk tends to suck energy away from any wider enjoyment of the trip or the destination, and if I'm at an event with other participants and speakers, I feel an obligation to attend those talks too (more on the reason why a bit later on). Finally, when you travel to a lot for specific events, it all tends to get a bit monotonous. You see the world through airports and hotel rooms. Sometimes these are nice places, but they can be a bit same-y.

2. Preparing a Talk
The common cliché is that preparation is paramount. I try to avoid clichés, but when it comes to giving talks this is one that I wholeheartedly endorse. Most talks I attend (and give!) are bad. I can't say for sure why this is the case, but my guess is that the majority of the time the problem is that the speaker hasn't prepared properly. They haven't thought about the audience and their expectations; they haven't rehearsed and refined what they want to say; they haven't given due consideration to the time constraints of the talk; and they haven't put a proper structure on what it is they want to say.

I understand why this is. Proper preparation takes a lot of time and, given the low stakes of most talks, it's hard to justify that temporal investment. Other deadlines intervene and, before you know it, it is the night before your talk and you are frantically pulling together some slides and jotting down some bullet points so that you will have enough content to fill your time-slot.

I've been there.

The problem is that this under-investment of time and frantic last-minute preparation just feeds the cycle of nihilism: you don't expect much from your talk, so you don't put much effort into it and, sure enough, your talk is a flop and this confirms your worst suspicions about the process. This is another reason not to over-leverage yourself and commit to giving too many; and another reason to only agree to give talks when you are willing to invest the time and effort required to make the talk as good as possible.

There is an odd paradox to this. I am aware of it. Once I embraced conference nihilism, I found that I was able to take the process of preparing and giving talks seriously once again. This was because I was free to reject invitations that I might otherwise have accepted out of some sense of professional obligation or personal ambition, and free to focus on accepting the few to which I was willing to dedicate myself. This has enabled me to enjoy the preparation process once again, to see it as something that can be intrinsically rewarding and fascinating, not just an unwelcome chore. The net result seems to be that I live the opposite of conference nihilism, while still being committed to conference nihilism in the abstract. I am happy to live with that paradox.

But what of the preparation process itself? Through trial and error, I have hit upon the following method that I try to follow when giving a talk. I don't always succeed, but when I do, I find that the end result is better.

Write it out and learn your speed limits
The first thing I like to do is write out the content of my talk in full. I don't aim for perfection. I try to come up with a rough first draft that I will subsequently refine. I do this for two reasons. The first, and most important, is that it allows me to control the length of my talk. Over the years, I have learned how many words I can say in a given period of time. I find this to be a powerful tool when preparing talks. For example, I know that if I have to give a ten minute talk, I will need to produce approximately 1200 words of text; if I have to give a twenty minute talk, I will need to produce about 2500; and so on. Writing it out gives me a clear sense of whether I am within those limits and whether something needs to be cut out or included to make it work (this is what I mean by learning your speed limits).

The other reason why I write it out is that it helps me to remember the content of my talk. I very rarely 'read' a talk, though sometimes I do refer to notes. Indeed, I find talks that are read out to be quite dull (even if some people can do it very well). This was one reason why I resisted writing anything out for years. I thought talks should be more casual, spontaneous monologues, and I worried that writing them out would make me a slave to a script. But I now realise that this isn't true. If you have a written script, and you learn it off and rehearse it, you can still be quite natural in your delivery and include some spontaneous ad libs and remarks. You can, however, do this safe in the knowledge that you know what you want to say and how long you have to say it.

Build an Enticing and Transparent Structure
When writing out the talk, I try to ensure that it has an enticing and transparent structure. In other words, I try to ensure that it says something that the audience might want to hear and that it is clear about its aims and objectives. I appreciate that this is a very generic 'tip', but it is hard to be more specific since the content of a good talk is highly variable. A dense, data-rich talk might go down well at a scientific conference, but not so much at a meeting of local politicians. My sense is that you should try to meet your audience's expectations as much as possible, but not at the expense of sacrificing your own values and competencies. So, for example, you might think it is important for the local politicians to hear the data-rich talk. That's fine. You just have to do more work to make them willing to hear it.

From my own perspective, there are three things I try to do when structuring a talk:

  • I try to build rapport and/or intrigue at the outset. In other words, I try to lead with an interesting story or example that sets up the problem I am going to discuss in the remainder of the talk. I also then try to explain where I want to bring the audience by the end of the talk. What proposition or thesis am I going to defend? Do I expect them to agree with it? Are they likely to be resistant to what I say? What assumptions will I make that they might not share? I see talks as an attempt to bridge the gap between different minds. My working hypothesis is that the gap between my mind and the mind of others is quite large and so I have to do a lot of work to bridge it. I have adopted this working hypothesis based on my own experiences when listening to other people talk. I find they assume that I know more than I do about the topic they are talking about it, that I will find it just as interesting as they do, and that we share similar methodological or theoretical assumptions. I try not to make those assumptions (though we all have our blindspots).

  • I try to include 'memorable moments' within the structure of the talk. These memorable moments could be interesting stories, thought experiments, visuals, statistics and so on. I like to pepper these throughout the talk and have at least one towards the start and one towards the end. How many I have in the middle depends on the length of the talk. The basic rationale behind this is that including such moments draws in the attention of those whose minds may have wandered away from the talk. Trying to have some audience participation can be a good way of doing this too. But I'm often too cowardly to do this.

  • I try to be provocative/interesting and not comprehensive. My academic instinct is to be comprehensive. When I'm writing something, I want to address every objection I can think of, to identify all the gaps in what I am saying, and acknowledge all the complexity and nuance. The problem is that I cannot do that in a talk, particularly a short talk of ten to fifteen minutes. I have to resist the urge to hedge every argument and highlight every nuance. I have to get the core idea across and I have to make that core idea (at least somewhat) provocative and interesting. This is because I want the audience to engage with it. If they have objections, great -- we can discuss them in the Q&A -- but I have to get them excited enough to even bother raising those objections. That said, I will admit that this is a bit of a balancing act. You don't want to be needlessly provocative and you don't want to come across as being naive or cavalier about the complexities of the issues you are talking about. So it is a judgment call, but my judgment is that academics tend to lean too far in favour of hedging and complexity when giving talks. This means they never get to the interesting idea within their allotted time.

Remember Less is More, Particularly with Visuals
A good heuristic for preparing a talk is to cut about a third from your initial draft. At least, that's always been a good heuristic for me. I try to stuff too much into my talks. This might be okay if I stuck to the script but I like to ad lib and wander when it seems appropriate to do so. This usually results in a rushed presentation and I end up sacrificing some of the interesting ideas I wanted to include anyway. I find it's better to nip this problem in the bud by murdering some of my darlings before I finalise the script, even if this is hard to do.

I've found that preparing for formal debates has been a good training ground for this. I'm not a huge fan of the debate format, but I've participated in a few (you can see one of my debate contributions on YouTube, here, listen to the audio of one here, and read another here), and the one thing they do have going for them is that they force you to condense your key arguments and ideas into a short timeframe. You typically get 10 minutes in a formal debate (sometimes more; sometimes less). If you want to present a robust argument for a proposition in that space of time, you have to cut out a lot of the fluff and nuance. I find this strict time limit to be creatively liberating as it counteracts my natural tendency to prolixity (he says 3,500 words into this article).

Less is more is definitely true when it comes to visual accompaniments to talks. I know it's a cliché to talk about 'death by powerpoint' but it amazes that people still produce horrendous powerpoint presentations to accompany their talks. You know the type: densely packed slides, with 12-point font that the speaker proceeds to read out with their back facing the audience. I've always tried to avoid that, but I have gone through different phases on how best to design a powerpoint.

For years, I adopted a powerpoint style that was similar to the one Lawrence Lessig employed (the so-called 'Lessig Method'). You can see what this is like in this video. The classic Lessig method is to have lots of slides, often consisting of single words or sentences, that serve as visual emphasis to the spoken words. The slides and the speaker thus perfectly complement one another, like different instruments in an orchestra. I never quite approached the staccato-esque style of Lessig, but I aim for something similar.

I now look on this as a mistake. I now think that you shouldn't use slides or visuals if they don't genuinely complement and accentuate what you are saying. This belief is born out of my experiences at conferences where the speakers have learned the 'less is more' lesson but have taken it too far. For example, I was recently at a conference where one speaker produced a slide deck that contained four slides, each of which consisted solely of a numbered heading for the sections of their talk, and another speaker produced a slide deck that consisted solely of photographs that served as obscure (and often unexplained) visual metaphors for what they were saying. I went away with the sense that both talks would have been better if the speakers had dropped the slides altogether and made themselves the focus of attention.

Nowadays, when I produce slides to accompany a talk, I try to have just a few images that help to explain the key concepts or ideas and I cut out all the other fluff. I've embedded two example slide decks from talks I have given in the past 12 months that hopefully illustrate my approach. The first is from a talk I gave about robotics and discrimination and the second is from a talk about algorithmic domination (written versions of both talks were formerly published as blog posts here and here). Both talks were about 25-30 minutes in length.

I should also add that I am a big fan of using handouts to accompany a talk. Indeed, early in my academic career I used to produce elaborate handouts to accompany every talk. I got out of the habit over the years because it was so labour-intensive, but I recently started to get back into it. So, for example, for the talk on algorithmic domination that I just mentioned, I produced a 2-page handout that summarised the key arguments. You can download it here (the back page with objections has blank spaces included by intention: the idea is that audience members can add their own objections and take note of my replies).

Rehearse and Refine
Once I have written out my talk, and prepared some accompanying visuals, I start to rehearse it and refine it. I do this in iterative phases. I'll start just by reading it out loud a few times to get a sense of where the 'beats' and points of emphasis need to be. Doing this will help me to identify clunky or awkward turns of phrase. It will also help to confirm how long the talk really takes. Oftentimes, I will do a reading first, before creating visuals. Remember, I want the visuals to complement what I actually say, and don't want to create visuals for elements of the talk that I may end up omitting (editing before creating visuals helps to avoid the problem of attachment).

Once I've read through the talk a good few times, I'll see if I can deliver it without reading it. I'll do this repeatedly until I seem to have it memorised. I'll then record myself and listen back. Listening back is useful because it allows me to experience the talk as a listener and this helps with further edits and refinements.

Ideally, I would do all this over an extended period of time. In other words, I would leave some space between the rehearsals and the listening back just to make sure I refine it to the best of my ability and have it thoroughly learned off. But I have to be honest and say that I rarely end up meeting this ideal. I usually only rehearse the day before the talk because, despite all my best efforts, I'm invariably still time-constrained when preparing, and everything tends to come down to the wire.

Still, I want to emphasise something: I think rehearsing and refining the talk is the single most important thing you can do to make your talk better. You might feel awkward reading aloud or rehearsing in your hotel room (or whereever) but doing this is, in my experience, the best way to prepare. It's only by performing the talk that you really get a feel for whether it works. And I use the term 'performing' deliberately. It's not enough to just memorise the words. It's about genuinely performing what you are saying, multiple times.

Despite the fact that I think this is the single most important thing you can do, my general impression is that very few people do it. I know this partly because I suggest it every year to students who have to prepare presentations for my classes and when I ask them if they did it, most say they did not. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the majority of the time when I attend talks, the speakers are saying the words for the first time and surprising themselves in the process.

3. Delivering the Talk
If you have done a thorough job preparing the talk, the actual delivery should be a doddle. This will be particularly true if you have rehearsed it several times. Like a trained musician, you will just slip into autopilot and become absorbed by your performance. You won't need to worry about nerves or distractions because you will be so well drilled.

But, of course, it's never that easy. For one thing, even with the best will in the world, you are likely to not do a thorough job in the preparation phase. You'll be stressed and probably nervous when it comes to delivery. How can you ensure that things go smoothly? I have no panaceas. My personal experience tells me that things rarely go smoothly. In fact, I cannot honestly say that I have ever given a talk where things went completely smoothly. Still, there are some things to bear in mind to mitigate the damage.

First, regarding nerves, the only thing I can say is that it gets easier with experience. I used to get quite nervous when giving talks; I no longer do. The sheer volume of public speaking I have to do as an academic (the hundreds of lectures and classes per year, plus other occasional talks) is an antidote to that. This doesn't mean that I'm nonchalant and completely relaxed. I'm pretty sure I'm in a state of mild anxiety (or physiological stress) whenever I give a talk, but this is a catalyst rather than an inhibitor.

Of course, that won't be very reassuring to someone who is experiencing a lot of nerves and doesn't have much experience. Beyond medication, the one bit of advice I remember from my early days, that I found helpful, was this: you are a natural talker. You talk to people every day and you do so quite comfortably. If you approach the talk with the same attitude, you should be fine. Easier said than done, perhaps, but I found it to be a useful mental re-framing.

Second, don't forget the importance of stage presence. How you physically occupy the space from which you give your talk is nearly as important what you say. If you aren't relying heavily on slides and visuals, then the audience's attention will be primarily on you, so you have to make sure you are comfortable to look at. If you are a concatenation of nervous tics and awkward habits, then the audience will disengage from what you are saying. They will look away, probably reaching for their phones for some relief. I tend to think that standing in one place, planting your feet, with some occasional movement or walking, is the best option. Hand gestures are good, but try not to have too many.

This is, again, one of those things that gets easier with repetition. I have to admit that I am pretty awful when it comes to nervous habits and stage presence. I'm often hunched and awkward when speaking. I breathe too heavily. I say 'kind of' too many times. I gesture wildly and sometimes do a Donald Trump-esque air pinch. I also have a tendency to pace back-and-forth from one side of the stage to the other (or, worse, rock back-and-forth on one foot), much to the annoyance of everyone. I never noticed any of this until someone pointed it out to me. Now I'm more self conscious and try to wean myself off these bad habits.

Third, you should commit to what you are saying, no matter how large or small the audience is. When you arrive at the venue and you are told that 2 people (or 200) have shown up, you might start to second-guess yourself. You might think that the joke you have used in your opening won't go down well with only two people; or you might want to leave out the more controversial stuff for the larger audience. You should try to nix those thoughts. Trust in your preparation. You have put a lot of thought into the content and you should commit to what you are saying. There is nothing worse from an audience's perspective than someone who nervously qualifies or apologises for everything they say. This doesn't mean you should be arrogant or aggressive. It just means you shouldn't doubt yourself at the point of delivery.

Finally, stick to the time limit. The biggest complaint I hear at academic events (and at talks in general) it is that (a) people speak for far too long and (b) the moderators don't stop them from doing this. This leads to conference chaos and lots of ill will. If you are on a panel with other speakers, then don't cut into their time with your own ramblings. If you are speaking on your own, then resist the temptation to exceed your pre-agreed time limit. Contrary to what you might think, you are not holding the audience captive. We all slip up in this regard, but sticking within the time limits should be seen as the primary ethical duty of the speaker.

I don't want to go on a long rant about this, but the inability to keep time is one of the things frustrates me most about talks and conferences. I was once at a conference that started at 8:30 am and, at 11:30 am, we were told by the organisers that we were running over 40 mins behind schedule and were asked (told!) if we would mind if we reduced the lunch break to make up for this. There is no need for this. If everyone prepared properly, they should know exactly how long their talk is going to be, and they should rarely, if ever, run over time. If everyone did this, the (conference) world would be a better place.

4. The Aftermath
What happens when it is all over? If you are lucky, people will want to ask questions or chat to you about you have said. This is a good thing. It means they were engaged. Even if they seem annoyed or they disagree with you, you should view this is a compliment. The worst thing is to finish a talk and be greeted by a sea of soporific faces, all of whom eager to get out of the room in which you have imprisoned them for last half hour. So I think politeness is key. I think you should always thank people for their questions and engage with them in good faith. Obviously there are limits to this and sometimes you may feel physically threatened by a questioner, but outside of those extremes I believe the default mode should be politeness, not aggression or sneering. I'm not always good at doing this, but again it's an ideal towards which I strive.

Politeness extends to your participation and attendance at other talks too. My view is that if you are invited to speak at a conference, and if there are other speakers and sessions, you should try to attend and participate in those other sessions. If you expect people to show up and listen to you, why shouldn't you return the favour? Surprisingly enough, there are many academics who don't do this. This is particularly true of senior academics. They get invited to give a keynote at a conference and then quickly leave when their session is done -- no doubt in a rush to catch the next flight to the next conference. I think this is a bad faith gesture2. I think such individuals have an obligation to hang around for a bit longer and engage with others. If they cannot do this, then they shouldn't accept the invitation.

In this respect, I always remember fondly a conference I attended where John Gardner (then the Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford) was the keynote speaker. The conference was for postgraduate students and, with the sole exception of his keynote, all the other speakers were either PhD or masters' students. Nevertheless, Gardner hung around all day, spoke to several students at lunch about their research, and attended panel sessions in the afternoon. It says something about the nature of academic conferences that this event sticks out in my memory.

Finally, what about the long-term follow-up? Should you review your past talks? Try to figure out what went wrong or improve it in the future? Yes, I think you should. If a talk I have given has been recorded, I like to listen back or watch it and take notes on what I think worked and what didn't. I don't like to overdo this, but I think it is a useful exercise. I will also sometimes write out some reflective notes for talks that weren't recorded, usually the day after I gave them.

One problem I do, however, have with this long-term review and follow-up is that with one or perhaps two limited exceptions, I have never given the same talk twice. I don't mean this in the trivial sense that every talk is somewhat different. I mean I have never delivered a paper or talk that had the same title or was on the same core topic/argument. This makes it hard for me to learn something specific for a future presentation. It's not like I have an 'act' that I am constantly refining. Recently, I've been reading about stand-up comics and learning about how they develop and hone their acts. They do  by developing, refining and then rehearsing their material into an hour (or half-hour) of material that they can repeat over and over again. I wish I could do that. Maybe I will in the future. But right now, I don't seem to be built for that. I always want to move onto something new.

Sample Talks
  • Symbols and their Consequences in the Sex Robot Debate (TEDx talk) - Video; Script; Slides
  • Are we ready for robot relationships? Debate - Video (from 22:11)
  • The Algorithmic Self in Love - Video (not one of my better efforts: ran a few minutes over time)
  • Exploitation, Commodification and Harm: Navigating the Ethical Debate about Commercial Surrogacy - Video
  • Artificial Intelligence and the Constitutions of the Future - Script; Slides
  • Technological Unemployment and the Search for Meaning - Script; Slides
  • Slaves to the Machine: Understanding the Paradox of Transhumanism - Script;

  1. I'm sure I know the reason for this: When speaking in front of an audience, I get to control what happens; when conversing with someone I don't know, I lose that sense of control. In other words, public speaking appeals to my inner narcissist and control freak. ↩︎
  2. And one that I was recently guilty of committing. So I am, as I have noted before, a hypocrite. In my defence, I offered to pull out the relevant conference when I knew this would be a problem and had it agreed with the organisers. I also tried my best to participate in other sessions when I was there ↩︎