2 hrs 19 min

#109 – Holden Karnofsky on the most important century 80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

    • Education

Will the future of humanity be wild, or boring? It's natural to think that if we're trying to be sober and measured, and predict what will really happen rather than spin an exciting story, it's more likely than not to be sort of... dull.

But there's also good reason to think that that is simply impossible. The idea that there's a boring future that's internally coherent is an illusion that comes from not inspecting those scenarios too closely.

At least that is what Holden Karnofsky — founder of charity evaluator GiveWell and foundation Open Philanthropy — argues in his new article series titled 'The Most Important Century'. He hopes to lay out part of the worldview that's driving the strategy and grantmaking of Open Philanthropy's longtermist team, and encourage more people to join his efforts to positively shape humanity's future.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

The bind is this. For the first 99% of human history the global economy (initially mostly food production) grew very slowly: under 0.1% a year. But since the industrial revolution around 1800, growth has exploded to over 2% a year.

To us in 2020 that sounds perfectly sensible and the natural order of things. But Holden points out that in fact it's not only unprecedented, it also can't continue for long.

The power of compounding increases means that to sustain 2% growth for just 10,000 years, 5% as long as humanity has already existed, would require us to turn every individual atom in the galaxy into an economy as large as the Earth's today. Not super likely.

So what are the options? First, maybe growth will slow and then stop. In that case we today live in the single miniscule slice in the history of life during which the world rapidly changed due to constant technological advances, before intelligent civilization permanently stagnated or even collapsed. What a wild time to be alive!

Alternatively, maybe growth will continue for thousands of years. In that case we are at the very beginning of what would necessarily have to become a stable galaxy-spanning civilization, harnessing the energy of entire stars among other feats of engineering. We would then stand among the first tiny sliver of all the quadrillions of intelligent beings who ever exist. What a wild time to be alive!

Isn't there another option where the future feels less remarkable and our current moment not so special?

While the full version of the argument above has a number of caveats, the short answer is 'not really'. We might be in a computer simulation and our galactic potential all an illusion, though that's hardly any less weird. And maybe the most exciting events won't happen for generations yet. But on a cosmic scale we'd still be living around the universe's most remarkable time.

Holden himself was very reluctant to buy into the idea that today’s civilization is in a strange and privileged position, but has ultimately concluded "all possible views about humanity's future are wild".

In the conversation Holden and Rob cover each part of the 'Most Important Century' series, including:

• The case that we live in an incredibly important time
• How achievable-seeming technology - in particular, mind uploading - could lead to unprecedented productivity, control of the environment, and more
• How economic growth is faster than it can be for all that much longer
• Forecasting transformative AI
• And the implications of living in the most important century

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

Will the future of humanity be wild, or boring? It's natural to think that if we're trying to be sober and measured, and predict what will really happen rather than spin an exciting story, it's more likely than not to be sort of... dull.

But there's also good reason to think that that is simply impossible. The idea that there's a boring future that's internally coherent is an illusion that comes from not inspecting those scenarios too closely.

At least that is what Holden Karnofsky — founder of charity evaluator GiveWell and foundation Open Philanthropy — argues in his new article series titled 'The Most Important Century'. He hopes to lay out part of the worldview that's driving the strategy and grantmaking of Open Philanthropy's longtermist team, and encourage more people to join his efforts to positively shape humanity's future.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

The bind is this. For the first 99% of human history the global economy (initially mostly food production) grew very slowly: under 0.1% a year. But since the industrial revolution around 1800, growth has exploded to over 2% a year.

To us in 2020 that sounds perfectly sensible and the natural order of things. But Holden points out that in fact it's not only unprecedented, it also can't continue for long.

The power of compounding increases means that to sustain 2% growth for just 10,000 years, 5% as long as humanity has already existed, would require us to turn every individual atom in the galaxy into an economy as large as the Earth's today. Not super likely.

So what are the options? First, maybe growth will slow and then stop. In that case we today live in the single miniscule slice in the history of life during which the world rapidly changed due to constant technological advances, before intelligent civilization permanently stagnated or even collapsed. What a wild time to be alive!

Alternatively, maybe growth will continue for thousands of years. In that case we are at the very beginning of what would necessarily have to become a stable galaxy-spanning civilization, harnessing the energy of entire stars among other feats of engineering. We would then stand among the first tiny sliver of all the quadrillions of intelligent beings who ever exist. What a wild time to be alive!

Isn't there another option where the future feels less remarkable and our current moment not so special?

While the full version of the argument above has a number of caveats, the short answer is 'not really'. We might be in a computer simulation and our galactic potential all an illusion, though that's hardly any less weird. And maybe the most exciting events won't happen for generations yet. But on a cosmic scale we'd still be living around the universe's most remarkable time.

Holden himself was very reluctant to buy into the idea that today’s civilization is in a strange and privileged position, but has ultimately concluded "all possible views about humanity's future are wild".

In the conversation Holden and Rob cover each part of the 'Most Important Century' series, including:

• The case that we live in an incredibly important time
• How achievable-seeming technology - in particular, mind uploading - could lead to unprecedented productivity, control of the environment, and more
• How economic growth is faster than it can be for all that much longer
• Forecasting transformative AI
• And the implications of living in the most important century

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

2 hrs 19 min

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