The Future of Humanity Institute is a multidisciplinary research institute at the University of Oxford. It enables a select set of leading intellects to bring the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects. The Institute belongs to the Faculty of Philosophy and is affiliated with the Oxford Martin School.
The Future of Humanity Institute is a leading research centre looking at big-picture questions for human civilization. The last few centuries have seen tremendous change, and this century might transform the human condition in even more fundamental ways. Using the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science, we explore the risks and opportunities that will arise from technological change, weigh ethical dilemmas, and evaluate global priorities. Our goal is to clarify the choices that will shape humanity’s long-term future.
For a thoughtful introduction to the FHI and its mission, we suggest “Omens”, Aeon‘s profile of the Future of Humanity Institute.
The most recent internal university review, which also included assessment by outside academic experts, found that the Institute’s work is world-leading and ground-breaking. It noted the impressive amount of work achieved with relatively scant resources and stressed the need for expansion. It lauded the outstanding intellectual calibre of the Institute’s research staff and the highly innovative and interdisciplinary climate that has been created.
FHI has thus established itself as a world-leading pioneer in its fields of activity. The Institute’s research is published in the world’s top scientific and philosophical journals, and its staff is frequently asked to advise governments and other public bodies.
FHI benefits from being a part of the Oxford Faculty of Philosophy, which is one of the largest philosophy departments in the world, and widely recognised to be amongst the best. The The 2008 RAE shows Oxford philosophy to have more than twice as much research activity at the highest level as any other UK department. The faculty earned top ranking in the 2009 and 2011 editions of the Philosophical Gourmet Report. FHI also benefits from being part of the Oxford Martin School, which provides a unique interdisciplinary embedding and academic support.
The Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) is an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Oxford investigating big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects. It was founded in 2005 as part of the Faculty of Philosophy and the Oxford Martin School, England, United Kingdom. Its director is philosopher Nick Bostrom, and its research staff and associates include futurist Anders Sandberg, engineer K. Eric Drexler, economist Robin Hanson, and Giving What We Can founder Toby Ord.
Sharing an office and working closely with the Centre for Effective Altruism, the Institute's stated objective is to focus research where it can make the greatest positive difference for humanity in the long term. It engages in a mix of academic and outreach activities, seeking to promote informed discussion and public engagement in government, businesses, universities, and other organizations.
Nick Bostrom established the Institute in November 2005 as part of the Oxford Martin School, then the James Martin 21st Century School. Between 2008 and 2010, FHI hosted the Global Catastrophic Risks conference, wrote 22 academic journal articles, and published 34 chapters in academic volumes. FHI researchers have been mentioned over 5,000 times in the media and have given policy advice at the World Economic Forum, to the private and non-profit sector (such as the Macarthur Foundation, and the World Health Organization), as well as to governmental bodies in Sweden, Singapore, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Bostrom and bioethicist Julian Savulescu also published the book Human Enhancement in March 2009. Most recently, FHI has focused on the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence (AI). In 2014, its researchers published several books on AI risk, including Stuart Armstrong's Smarter Than Us and Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.
The largest topic FHI has spent time exploring is global catastrophic risk, and in particular existential risk. In a 2002 paper, Bostrom defined an "existential risk" as one "where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential". This includes scenarios where humanity is not directly harmed, but it fails to colonize space and make use of the observable universe's available resources in humanly valuable projects, as discussed in Bostrom's 2003 paper, "Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development".
Bostrom and Milan Ćirković's 2008 book Global Catastrophic Risks collects essays on a variety of such risks, both natural and anthropogenic. Possible catastrophic risks from nature include super-volcanism, impact events, and energetic astronomical events such as gamma-ray bursts, cosmic rays, solar flares, and supernovae. These dangers are characterized as relatively small and relatively well understood, though pandemics may be exceptions as a result of being more common, and of dovetailing with technological trends.
Synthetic pandemics via weaponized biological agents are given more attention by FHI. Technological outcomes the Institute is particularly interested in include anthropogenic climate change, nuclear warfare and nuclear terrorism, molecular nanotechnology, and artificial general intelligence. In expecting the largest society-wise risks to stem from future technologies, and from advanced artificial intelligence in particular, FHI agrees with other existential risk reduction organizations, such as the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. FHI researchers have also studied the impact of technological progress on social and institutional risks, such as totalitarianism, automation-driven unemployment, and information hazards.
FHI devotes much of its attention to exotic threats that have been little explored by other organizations, and to methodological considerations that inform existential risk reduction and forecasting. The Institute has particularly emphasized anthropic reasoning in its research, as an under-explored area with general epistemological implications.
Anthropic arguments FHI has studied include the doomsday argument, which claims that humanity is likely to go extinct soon because it is unlikely that one is observing a point in human history that is extremely early. Instead, present-day humans are likely to be near the middle of the distribution of humans that will ever live. Bostrom has also popularized the simulation argument, which suggests that if we're likely to avoid existential risks, humanity and the world around are not unlikely to be a simulation.
A recurring theme in FHI's research is the Fermi paradox, the surprising absence of observable alien civilizations. Robin Hanson has argued that there must be a "Great Filter" preventing space colonization to account for the paradox. That filter may lie in the past, if intelligence is much more rare than current biology would predict; or it may lie in the future, if existential risks are even larger than is currently recognized.
Human enhancement and rationality
Closely linked to FHI's work on risk assessment, astronomical waste, and the dangers of future technologies is its work on the promise and risks of human enhancement. The modifications in question may be biological, digital, or sociological, and an emphasis is placed on the most radical hypothesized changes, rather than on the likeliest short-term innovations. FHI's bioethics research focuses on the potential consequences of gene therapy, life extension, brain implants and brain–computer interfaces, and mind uploading.
FHI's focus has been on methods for assessing and enhancing human intelligence and rationality, as a way of shaping the speed and direction of technological and social progress. FHI's work on human irrationality, as exemplified in cognitive heuristics and biases, includes an ongoing collaboration with Amlin to study the systemic risk arising from biases in modeling.
- Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies ISBN 0-415-93858-9
- Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic: Global Catastrophic Risks ISBN 978-0-19-857050-9
- Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg: Brain Emulation Roadmap
- Nick Bostrom and Julian Savulescu: Human Enhancement ISBN 0-19-929972-2
- Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy ISBN 0-415-93858-9
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- Ross Andersen (25 February 2013). "Omens". Aeon Magazine. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
- "Google News". Google News. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
- Nick Bostrom (18 July 2007). Achievements Report: 2008-2010 (PDF) (Report). Future of Humanity Institute. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 December 2012. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
- Mark Piesing (17 May 2012). "AI uprising: humans will be outsourced, not obliterated". Wired. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
- Coughlan, Sean (24 April 2013). "How are humans going to become extinct?". BBC News. Retrieved 29 March 2014.
- Nick Bostrom (March 2002). "Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards". Journal of Evolution and Technology. 15 (3): 308–314. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
- Nick Bostrom (November 2003). "Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development". Utilitas. 15 (3): 308–314. doi:10.1017/s0953820800004076. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
- Ross Andersen (6 March 2012). "We're Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction". The Atlantic. Retrieved 29 March 2014.
- Kate Whitehead (16 March 2014). "Cambridge University study centre focuses on risks that could annihilate mankind". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 29 March 2014.
- Jenny Hollander (September 2012). "Oxford Future of Humanity Institute knows what will make us extinct". Bustle. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
- Nick Bostrom. "Information Hazards: A Typology of Potential Harms from Knowledge" (PDF). Future of Humanity Institute. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
- John Tierney (13 August 2007). "Even if Life Is a Computer Simulation...". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
- Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom. "Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap" (PDF). Future of Humanity Institute. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
- "Amlin and Oxford University launch major research project into the Systemic Risk of Modelling" (Press release). Amlin. 11 February 2014. Retrieved 2014-03-31.
- "Amlin and Oxford University to collaborate on modelling risk study". Continuity, Insurance & Risk Magazine. 11 February 2014. Retrieved 31 March 2014.