May 19, 2024

Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute shuts its doors 

A powerhouse at Oxford generating controversial bioethical ideas has closed its doors. The Future of HumanityInstitute, headed by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, opened in 2005 and was wound up earlier this month.

A valedictory message on the FHI website said the institute had made a valuable contribution to the study of the future.“Topics that once struggled to eke out a precarious existence at the margins of a single philosophy department are nowpursued by leading AI labs, government agencies, nonprofits, and specialized academic research centers (with manymore in the process of creation).”

Outside of academia, Professor Bostrom is best known for his 2014 book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers andStrategies. Leading lights in Silicon Valley loved it. “I highly recommend this book,” said Bill Gates. “Worth reading,”said Elon Musk. He not only contributed a blurb; he also donated over US$1 million to FHI.

At FHI a number of wild and wonderful ideas and movements emerged. According to the website:

FHI was involved in the germination of a wide range of ideas including existential risk, effective altruism,longtermism, AI alignment, AI governance, global catastrophic risk, grand futures, information hazards, theunilateralist’s curse, and moral uncertainty. It also did significant work on anthropics, human enhancementethics, systemic risk modeling, forecasting and prediction markets, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,and on the attributes and strategic implications of key future technologies.

Bostrom is a transhumanist who has been a robust advocate of human enhancement to create “an optimally enhancedhuman being” But more recently he was known as a pioneer of the ethics of artificial intelligence.

What went wrong?

The collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX and the conviction of its CEO Sam Bankman-Fried for fraud mayhave had something to do with it. Bankman-Fried was a backer of a philosophy promoted by FHI, effective altruism.This is the utilitarian belief that people should focus on maximizing the amount of global good they can do. Bankman-Fried made a motza and gave it away – but it was other people’s money.

As a philosophy, effective altruism proved very brittle. It probably wasn’t welcome at Oxford’s philosophy department,of which FHI was a part.

Furthermore, early last year someone exhumed an email from the 1990s in which Bostrom made a shockingly racistcomment. He apologised, but the news caused a scandal. Late last year, Oxford announced that the contracts of theremaining FHI staff would not be renewed.