Not all explorers are hearty outdoors fanatics with a penchant for wild places and uncharted lands. Some, instead, are explorers of the intangible and existential. They are philosophers and futurists who try to think their way into places that nobody has ever been to before.
One such explorer is Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.
Speaking to Euronews Explorers, he heartily embraces the metaphor of exploration: “We are trying to explore the future, and it’s rather like trying to hack your way through a very dense forest with a machete, you can’t see very far!” he laughs.
Such exploration can lead Anders to heady heights, as he sets about evaluating and establishing the nature of problems that have the potential to end life as we know it. And the process of exploring what may or may not happen in the future is not in any way straightforward, rather like exploring our planet.
“If you look at historical explorers and plot their paths, typically they are very erratic; they don’t go in a straight line and carefully survey the field. They go back and forth because they discover things and those things change where they need to go. And we do very much the same thing,” he says.
So what do these explorers do all day? “Much of our research is about global catastrophic risk, and one of the reasons is that in almost all human ethical systems, the extinction of the human species is considered really bad.“
So working out how to avoid having that happen and establishing what Anders would call a ‘robust direction’ for exploration is one of the keys of his team’s work.
“We see that as a kind of summit at a dark horizon, and one we had better scale.”
Tools of the future philosopher
So what tools can the futurist take with him on an expedition? The physical ones are simple enough.
“A laptop, a whiteboard and a cup of coffee,” he says. “A whiteboard is a way of having a collective working memory. You can share and explain, and next morning when you come back into the office, it’s going to be there.”
“We have some diagrams that have been on whiteboards around here for several months, gradually expanding and contracting. So that is kind of ‘base camp’ for exploration.”
The tools he takes on an expedition include methods of analytic philosophy. “They are rather strong, sharp implements. They are not good for everything, but they are good for climbing some apparently steep walls. Then of course we have a full rucksack full of scientific method, data and instruments.”
Explorers need maps too, and here the ground becomes much less certain.
“What we typically try to do is figure out small principals or rules of thumb, good arguments that seem solid enough that we can use them to guide us,” Anders explains.
He looks to science for map making material: “One of the principles that I love to lean on is the laws of physics – energy is conserved and information doesn’t move faster than light speed, and so on.”
“You need something solid to lean on as that rope to get across the chasm to the other side.”
But even with a set of tools and rules it can be difficult to know where to explore, he tells us: “A lot of what we’re interested in is what direction should we be going? It’s surprising in how many parts of human life that people are working in some direction without spending that much time thinking ‘is this the right direction?’”
He is skeptical of some of the choices made by scientific researchers: “In most research you barge down the obvious pathway, and in many domains you can go very far with that. Even if your results don’t matter, you can publish them. So there are endless papers about whatever chemical effects on the kidneys of rats.” Papers that Anders argues may not have an obvious role in serving the goal of keeping humanity alive.
Exploring existential risks
One of the issues that Anders cites as a key challenge for his type of exploration is the nature of the risks that he is evaluating. They are by their nature, small, powerful, and unknown. That makes them hard to handle, simply because the risk of being wrong is actually greater than the risk being evaluated.He explains the concept: “I have a paper I’m rather proud of which is all about how likely it is that any argument about risk is wrong. You probably cannot write a paper which has a lower chance than one per cent of actually being wrong.”
“And this has a weird effect on risk estimates, because when we worry about really small risks, the small but deadly risks that might affect human life, like really radical climate change, if I try to calculate that probability, the probability of me being wrong is bigger than the probability I’m trying to grasp. It’s like trying to get at a small pearl using a very heavy glove.”
“That doesn’t mean that we cannot reason about these small risks, because we do, and lotteries wouldn’t work if we couldn’t reason about small probabilities.”
Overall, his tone is reassuring, however. The end of the world is not nigh, because if the end of the world was going to happen, the chances are it would have happened already –wouldn’t it?