Is it Possible to Get Non-Immortalists to Care about Existential Risks?

I’m just curious. Here I’m specifically talking about existential risks generally considered to be more than 15 or so years in the future (even though they may in fact be nearer), like self-replicating microbots, recursively self-improving AI, and the like. Do non-immortalists just not look very far ahead, or are they just skeptical that the risks are technologically feasible?

There is somewhat of an overlap between the technologies predicted to lead to radical life extension (nanotech mainly) and the risks themselves, so it would make sense that immortalists are more informed on these technologies, including their risks. But this overlap only goes so far – websites on radical life extension generally address the benefits of medical nanotechnology while largely ignoring the risks. There are also many risks unrelated to life extension: AI, synthetic biology, nanoweapons, etc. So maybe immortalists just care about these risks because they have a much longer expected lifespan and accordingly look further into the future?

The ironic thing is that risks 15+ years away still threaten most of the population today, including all baby boomers. Why is it, on average, that I see more serious attention given to existential risks from the younger (than 40) set than the boomers? (Update: this may be incorrect on my part, based on the bias that my friends tend to be younger, and past involvement with SIAI where many supporters are young. Look at the Lifeboat Foundation donor list and you see many people over 40, plus Martin Rees, Stephen Hawking, Ray Kurzweil, etc.)

Of particular concern are the older Republicans in the United States, pre-boomers, who advocate the development and potential deployment (against Iran) of nuclear weapons. These people have lived the longest with the threat of nuclear war – why is it that they seem the most hawkish about the deployment of nukes? Don’t they understand that a single use of a nuke would set a precedent for further usage by other countries, and that the expected cost of using conventional firepower is much less, even if thousands of soldiers have to die, because it avoids setting a nuclear precedent?

I wish the US would have a policy where it went into future wars with a declaration not to use nuclear weapons, as long as certain conditions are kept (like no one else jumping in). Maybe the world would feel less like it’s being threatened by the US that way, and we could reduce the justifications used by rogue states to acquire the weapons.


  1. In my experience, the biggest challenge is skepticism or God-won’t-let-it-happen-ism.

  2. Younger people have more life to lose. They also have a keener sense of the accelerating pace of technology development, including weapons tech.

    If people are going to fall into a “intuitive linear view” instinctively, while tech development accelerates, then the lines projected by successive generations will still be steeper, even if they are still linear.

    It’s also not like the average person can actually do anything about such risks. In the words of Mike Treder & Chris Phoenix at CRN, “More research is needed”. It’s bad enough that we don’t really know enough about the nature of these threats. Even if we had a better picture, it’s both difficult and foolhardy to mount massive international campaigns against threats no one has demonstrated are necessary. How do you think we ended up in Iraq?

    This is a really difficult line to tread. Once you’re stuck between the rock of being careful about being duped into reacting to threats that are not immediately apparent (and can easily be manufactured by partisans with alterior motives), andthe hard place absolutely needing to prepare for them //before// they happen (because of how quickly they can snowball), you’re in a real pickle.

  3. “Why is it, on average, that I see more serious attention given to existential risks from the younger (than 40) set than the boomers?”

    I think it’s just because young people tend to be more open to weird new ideas.

  4. Also, young people are on the internet more. I think Martin Rees, John Leslie, and Richard Posner all wrote books on the subject, and they’re not young.

  5. Warren Bonesteel

    There’s some attribution bias in that Republican Boomer statement, Michael.
    (As a ‘Classical’ Libertarian,) I can use the same logical fallacy and make a very similar statement about Democrats…or even about scientists. ;O)

    As for the rest, take a look at neuroplasticity. That topic holds a part of your answer.

    Most people spend their days trying to balance the impossible. What they see and experience on a daily basis has little or nothing to do with what they are commonly taught – or told to do – by society’s traditional institutions.

    In the individual’s or group’s attempts to balance those conflicts emotionally and intellectually, new information can not be assimilated as easily as it might be under other conditions. If that information is in conflict with what little balance they have achieved, it is simply beyond their ability to assimilate it in any coherent or usable fashion. It simply won’t fit within their current meme or paradigm. Abandoning the old paradigm for that which is new is an individual effort of epic and heroic proportions. They also have to admit to themselves that they were/are wrong. So, pride – and no small amount of arrogance – comes into play as well.

    (see also: Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.”)

    All of that said, mankind is presently approaching a social singularity. Memes and narratives are changing. (My own evidence for that is contained in a paper that is quite a bit lengthier than your own post above.)

  6. sarah rose

    Given that non-immortalists (much less impactive/controversial a term than “deathist,” heh) seem most often to posit the argument that a world of immmortals would be undesirable because it would be a childless world, I have to think that they would still be concerned about existential risk, if not for themselves, on behalf of these hypothetical children-to-come.

    Personally, I am curious as to whether Christians who say that life extension therapies would mar the natural cycle of life would be accepting of preventative measures against existential risk (again, on behalf of future generations, etc). Escaping to a Lifeboat space station, for example, might be seen as stepping on God’s toes a bit (isn’t he traditionally a sky-dwelling diety?).

  7. Looking at some of the postings above, I cannot help but feel that most of us make assumptions about what others are thinking that are just plain wrong.

    That is alright as long as we are open to having our assumptions challenged. That’s the rub. Most people seem to me unwilling to challenge their own assumptions. That’s the real problem–minds that close very young, even before their prefrontal lobes are fully matured.

    Honestly, Michael, a lot of people use alcohol and drugs to escape anything that makes them uncomfortable. Of those who are intelligent enough, courageous enough, and honest enough to step out into an uncertain world of existential risk, your readership probably constitutes a significant proportion.

  8. Carl Shulman

    “Why is it, on average, that I see more serious attention given to existential risks from the younger (than 40) set than the boomers?”
    Mental flexibility, and growing up with much greater exposure to information technology and transhumanism (Drexler published Nanosystems in 1992, Engines in 1987, Kurzweil’s writing has really taken off over the last 10 years, Deep Blue, etc).

  9. Carl Shulman

    Most people reject the idea of undertaking substantial sacrifices in current QOL in exchange for future gains in longevity and QOL, particularly where those gains are uncertain. They also are risk-averse with respect to policy and altruism.

    The traits and experiences that lead to applying the logic of risk-neutral and non-time-discounted maximization to your personal life are surely correlated with those that would lead you to apply optimization principles to altruism.

  10. Carl Shulman


    You should also recall that there are a nontrivial number of utilitarian non-immortalists concerned with existential risk.

  11. Kurt9

    The only risks I see in the forseable future is that of intrusive government regulation and bureaucracy.

  12. I would a little further than that. I would actually assert that to some degree, in many people, there is a deathist sentiment of “please let’s get on with this”. The sentiment floats somewhere in the middle between a morbid fatigue of the world, of responsibilities, of choices, of mortgages, of big threats and minor ills. I say that many people wouldn’t mind all that much if one day they became aware of that Flash on the Horizon.

    As in “at least I hope I and my loved ones die quickly.”

    Maybe I suck at making people enthusiastic, but whenever I tell them in clear terms (and I consider myself gifted in painting an image, years of experience) what is likely to happen, eyes glaze over, there are belaboured sighs and people “just don’t want all that”.

    Am I a little to vivid in my descriptions or are my worst fears true? Are a lot of people just plain tired with it all? Do many, many people prefer to fade away and give the world to those bright eyed little kids, with all that juice and passion, and let them figure it out?

    Right now we do not live in a very nice reality, even in the modern industrialized parts. It is sapping people’s spirits. That may be a huge aspect of threat and danger we are facing. People no longer giving a damn because all they experience is so … monolithic and … choking…

  13. Daniel Radetsky

    I’m surprised nobody has yet suggested that baby boomers care less about X-risks because they have less life to lose? We are, after all, talking about non-immortalists here.

    Also, your comment about a ‘nuclear precedent’ is just silly. There is already a nuclear precedent. We set it. Moreover, rogue states, almost by definition, do not need to be led by example to acquire or use nuclear weapons. Why on earth would rogue state A be unwilling to nuke us unless we nuked rogue state B first?

    Obviously, our decision to nuke rogue state B might incite rogue state A to nuke us, but this is another question entirely, and certainly not the same thing as a precedent. Our decision to nuke rogue state B could have all kinds of consequences. That one of them is that rogue state A *might* nuke us in response is no basis for a decision one way or another. We must have likelihoods.

  14. Daniel; by “us” I must presume you mean the USA. If that is the case, there are three countries in the world with the capacity to use nuclear weapons against the US, aside from the US itself: Russia, China, and Britain. Including US, these are the 4 countries in the world with the infrastructure necessary to deploy an ICBM.

    It is worth noting that we facilitated China and Britain in acquiring these capacities — to the point of physically conveying ownership of a military tracking satellite to China under the Clinton Administration. Even so, they are far more likely to use them on each other as opposed to us.

    “Rogue state” is a term I dislike on its face; it implies the evolution rather than devolution of authority from the individual state level, which is a great deal of how we got into this mess in the first place.

  15. Bob Mottram

    Yes it would be an idea to have a clear set of rules of engagement under which nukes would be permitted. But this is really just fantasy armchair general stuff. Anyone who has seriously thought about the consequences of use of nuclear weapons – even smaller ones under limited conditions – realizes that this is a very slippery and steep slope.

    Even a localized nuclear war could quickly lead to something much bigger, according to the logic of mutually assured destruction. Is the leadership of any nation when assaulted (or even just seriously threatened) by nuclear attack going to show restraint in deploying their own against the (real or perceived) aggressor? I don’t think so.

  16. Even a localized nuclear war could quickly lead to something much bigger, according to the logic of mutually assured destruction. Is the leadership of any nation when assaulted (or even just seriously threatened) by nuclear attack going to show restraint in deploying their own against the (real or perceived) aggressor? I don’t think so.

    Barring physical restraints, this is accurate. Right now, the physical restraints are the lack of deployed satellite technology.

    Of course, that only goes so far — and that’s what the group “The Lifeboat Foundation” is ‘for’; take, for instance, the NanoShield project.

  17. Aside from Seth Baum, Martin Rees, and Stephen Hawking, name one non-immortalist concerned about x-risk. (Not “catastrophic risks” that kill billions, but x-risks that specifically kill EVERYONE.)

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