Erik J. Larson and The Myth of Artificial Intelligence

The field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no stranger to prophesy. At the Ford Distinguished Lectures in 1960, the economist Herbert Simon declared that within 20 years machines would be capable of performing any task achievable by humans. In 1961, Claude Shannon — the founder of information theory — predicted that science fiction style robots would emerge within 15 years. The mathematician I.J. Good conceived of a runaway “intelligence explosion,” a process whereby smarter-than-human machines iteratively improve their own intelligence. Writing in 1965, Good predicted that the explosion would arrive before the end of the twentieth century. In 1993, Verner…

The Against Malaria Foundation distributes insecticide treated bednets to regions to Africa, Asia, and South America. According to the charity evaluator GiveWell, they require just over $3,000 USD to save a life. This is remarkably cost-effective, especially compared to the value of life used by most governments. The American Department of Transportation values a life at 9.6 million USD, for instance.

Suppose you want to donate — what should you consider? For one, your donation could save a pregnant mother from malaria. But what if she then goes on to start a small business, leading to increased carbon emissions which…

These ideas express one of the oldest dreams of mankind — the dream of prophecy, the idea that we can know what the future has in store for us, and that we can profit from such knowledge by adjusting our policy to it.

- Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations

The newest agents of prophecy are masquerading under the academic discipline named cliodynamics. Its goal, as explained by one of its founders, Peter Turchin, is to “transform history into an analytical, predictive science.” …

For many, 2020 has been a challenging year.

The global disruption wrought by the pandemic has caused loneliness, estrangement, and sorrow. We have witnessed death and injustice, poverty and sickness. It is a rare person who has been untouched by tragedy. And yet, while the pandemic has brought some of the world’s suffering into sharper focus, it also reminds us of the tremendous progress we have made.

We are at an unprecedented time in history: We can do something about the abundance of suffering around us.

For most of our story, our ability to eradicate poverty, cure disease, and save…

“If you hand me your wallet,” says the mugger to Pascal, “I will perform magic that will give you an extra 1,000 quadrillion happy days of life.” So goes the thought experiment named Pascal’s mugging, created by Nick Bostrom.

The setting is as follows. You are approached by a mugger in the street who, instead of robbing you with force, promises to grant you thousands of days of bliss if you give her your wallet. While her claim is obviously implausible, you can’t prove it is impossible. Thus, given a large enough promised reward, the expected value of handing over…

The new moral philosophy of longtermism has staggering implications if widely adopted. In The Case for Strong Longtermism, Hilary Greaves and Will MacAskill write

The idea, then, is that for the purposes of evaluating actions, we can in the first instance often simply ignore all the effects contained in the first 100 (or even 1000) years, focussing primarily on the further-future effects. Short-run effects act as little more than tie-breakers. (pg. 1; emphasis mine)

The idea energizing this philosophy is that most of our “moral value” lies thousands, millions, or even billions of years from now, because we can expect…

Ben Chugg

Research Fellow at Stanford, co-host of the Increments podcast. Lukewarm takes on twitter (@BennyChugg), and more havoc at

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store