Nick Bostrom v. Anarchists and Libertarians

Nick Bostrom is an Oxford philosopher known for work on ‘anthropic reasoning‘, warnings about the dangers of superintelligent AI, and the simulation argument (see my thoughts on the latter). He recently released a new working paper: ‘The Vulnerable World Hypothesis‘ that poses a strong argument for strengthening global state power. Anarchists and libertarians of all stripes should consider the argument and address it, as it constitutes a serious challenge to their program.

In the paper, Bostrom argues as follows: think of human technological development as an urn filled with balls. Most balls are white: these are mostly beneficial, or at least harmless, technological developments. A few are gray: they’re dangerous and have potentially catastrophic consequences, but either act on a long enough timeline that it’s possible to prevent these consequences, or are otherwise containable (fossil fuels and nuclear weapons might both go under this category). Presumably, there are some black balls. These are the sort that, if anyone discovered this technology, it is almost certain that humanity would suffer a catastrophic, possibly species-annihilating, event within a very short span of time, unless it were possible to very quickly and effectively contain it.

Bostrom elucidates the black ball possibility vividly: we had no reason to assume that something like nuclear power, if it were possible, should be easy or difficult to recreate. Had it turned out that nukes were fairly easy to make in your own basement, we might not be around right now to talk about it.…

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Qualifying the Simulation Argument: Extra Possibilities

simulation argument

The “Simulation Argument” was first proposed by Nick Bostrom in his 2003 paper “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?“. While typically taken to argue that we are, in fact, living in a simulation, Bostrom’s argument actually argues that one of the following three possibilities obtains (quoting from Bostrom’s paper):

1 – “The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a ‘posthuman’ stage.” (Elsewhere, Bostrom refers to the “posthuman stage” as “technological maturity”, which is the term I’ll use here.)

2 – “Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).” (Bostrom later refers to these as “ancestor-simulations”.)

3 – “We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.”

The three possibilities suggest the rough outline of the argument. If we don’t go extinct before reaching technological maturity (option 1), then we almost certainly will reach technological maturity (ie, a stage at which we’re able to run ancestor-simulations). At that point, it’s possible there’s some reason we likely won’t run these simulations despite being able to (option 2).

But if there isn’t, and there’s no reason to think it unlikely for a species like ours to reach this point, then we have to consider the possibility that this has happened before and that we’re a simulation. The remaining step is to realize that any given species might create thousands upon thousands of these ancestor-simulations and that each of those may create thousands of their own.…

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