Interview with Nick Bostrom for Oxford Alumni Magazine

[Interview conducted at the Future of Humanity Institute, 4.45 p.m., Friday 17 July 2009]


What forms of human enhancement are, or are likely to become, available and what are your views on them?

Let’s begin with cognitive enhancement.  I’m fairly skeptical about the efficacy of the smart drugs currently available.  There are some drugs—e.g., coffee, Ritalin, modafinil—that give at least short-term benefits to some individuals, mainly by increasing mental energy and making it easier to concentrate.  There are memory-enhancing pharmaceuticals under clinical development which show some promise; but probably they will involve some kind of trade-off.  Perhaps they will improve some aspect of cognition at the expense of some other aspect.


However, I think it would be very valuable if cognitive enhancers could be developed that were both effective and safe for long-term use.  Human cognition is a most precious resource, of which we need both greater quantity and better quality.  It can be useful to think in terms of a “reversal test”: if you think the consequences of slightly better cognition would be bad, what do you think about the consequences of slightly worse cognition?  Almost everyone agrees that it would be bad if average IQ were reduced (for example through lead in the drinking water).  But why think that the current average IQ is exactly at an optimum such that both slightly less and slightly more would be bad?  If one thinks that is so, one might be suffering from a status quo bias.


Now consider performance enhancement in competitive sport.  This is a very different context.  Since it’s a zero-sum game, with a fixed number of medals, one athlete’s gain is another’s loss.


So we need to distinguish between enhancements that provide merely a positional good and enhancements that also provide instrumental or intrinsic benefits.   For the former kind—like sports doping—there seems no ethical reason to promote use or development of enhancers.  But cognition enhancers also can also have benefits other than making the user more effective at competing in zero-sum games, so they seem more desirable.  Similarly, enhancers that extend the healthy human lifespan would be very worth developing.  Anti-aging research, in particular, deserves a much higher priority, since age-related disease is the most common cause of death globally.


The issue of genetic engineering of the unborn is more complicated, raising distinctive moral and philosophical issues.  That said, my view is that increases in cognitive capacity and healthy lifespan, if they could be safely brought about, would be worth promoting.   In most cases, though, the choice should lie with the parents.


Aren’t you worried about opening up a ‘genetic divide’ in society?

This could be an issue of potential concern in the future.  It might be useful to compare cognitive enhancements with education.  Education can also widen social inequalities, since the rich can afford better education for their children.  The solution is for the state to subsidize education.  If there were effective cognitive enhancers, for example, and they were expensive, then there might similarly be a case for providing them for free to those who couldn’t afford them.  This might give a very good return on investment.  Compare the cost of a pill that made it easier to learn with the cost of providing an additional year of schooling.


So what is on the more immediate horizon?

Right now there are a number of memory enhancers undergoing clinical trials that may help ameliorate the effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.  We might see some these on the market in the next few years.  In other areas it is difficult to say.  There is a range of domains—sexual performance enhancers, weight-loss treatments, mood boosters, maybe pills that help create, maintain, or dissolve romantic attachments—where significant developments seem possible.  In sport we could see more gene doping, which is hard to detect.  Some of these would be mixed blessings.


What sort of world will we see in 2050? What will Oxford be like then, for instance?

Oxford ?  Nothing at all will have changed! [Laughter]  But it is not just the result of inertia.  Take the resistance to virtual reality in education, or even just videotaped lectures. Students like to feel that they are in the presence of other students and of eminent academics.  It makes them feel more distinguished.  So positional benefits are involved.  Education is not just about learning.


In general, though, it is very difficult to predict what kind of world there will be in 2050.  It is far enough into the future that there is a real chance that something truly radical might have happened by then—humanity might have become extinct, or superintelligent machines might have been invented, for example.  On the other hand, it is not so far into the future that one can be at all confident that the human condition will have changed fundamentally.  Basically, we just need to recognize that there is a great deal of uncertainty about this.


One of the reasons you favor radical human enhancement, I believe, is that it could arm us against the range of increasingly dangerous global threats that we face.

Well, some forms of human enhancement, for instance cognitive enhancement, could help protect against risks.  If we were smarter we would be better able to anticipate, analyze, and device countermeasures to existential risks, for instance.  Yet, radical forms of human enhancement can also increase some risks or create new ones.  If we were smarter we might more quickly develop a range of powerful new technologies some of which would pose serious existential risks.  It is a non-trivial challenge to figure out how this plays out.  It is one of the things we are working on.


One way of combating those risks, and especially the inequalities that might ensue, is something you call the ‘singleton’: what is that?

The singleton is one possible future structure for world civilization.  At present we have a lot of different agencies competing with one another—nation states, etc.  One possibility is that humanity becomes—at a certain very high level of abstraction—a single agent, i.e. becomes capable of routinely solving global coordination problems.  If this happens, there are some fairly big and obvious benefits, such as the ability to avoid arms races, solve global environmental problems, and provide various kinds of global public goods.  Of course, it would also create some risks, notably that this one agent would become corrupted or perverted.  There would then be no outside force capable of overthrowing or challenging it, and perhaps no free zone in which desirable development could continue.


Is a world authority a realistic goal? After all, it is sixty years since the UN was founded and, if anything, its authority is weaker than ever.

On an historical timescale, that is still a relatively short interval.


How can Oxford contribute to these “big questions” debates?

In three main ways.  Firstly, we can provide detailed, carefully argued studies to clarify specific aspects of the issues involved.  Secondly, we can contribute to the development of improved methodologies for analyzing and evaluating these issues.  Thirdly and more generally, we can help cultivate a truth-seeking and carefully reasoned spirit in regard to matters which have usually been considered as being outside academic research and have been relegated to retired physicists, sensationalizing journalists, attention-seeking gurus with books to sell, and assorted crackpots.  Few places have the intellectual self-confidence, as Oxford does, to take a serious shot at this.