Dr. Robin Hanson – On the Difficulty of Making Progress Towards Beneficial Future

Last week, I was fortunate enough to catch up with George Mason University Professor, Doctor Robin Hanson, one of the bloggers I admire most in the realm of intelligence and the future of humanity. After having Dr. Stuart Armstrong of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute refer to him favorably, and from reading his work myself (and from knowing of his experience as an Artificial Intelligence researcher with NASA), I knew I’d glean a lot from a talk.

After talking briefly about Dr. Hanson’s in-the-works book project on brain replication, and on some of my own interests in martial arts and ethics, we moved into a conversation centered around a question which I am passionately obsessed with:

“What approach(es) are needed to vigilantly pursue a most beneficial human future?”

The Ideal of Our Approaching a Beneficial Future

We spoke for a bit about what might be the ideal of the vigilant pursuit of the best human future. For Doctor Hanson, this does not involve finding “the answer” and then following in a given philosophical or technical direction. Rather, this implies a constant, vigilant pursuit, referenced from many angles, and checked and balanced in many ways – constantly gauging and calibrating the new findings, evidence and applications in the world and reality.

This would, of course, be great. If all the best futurist thinkers, philosophers, tech entrepreneurs, and others could rally around this cause of a genuine human future and vigilantly calibrate it’s progression forward (what technologies are to be developed when, how different new programs must be introduced, what societies might need to adapt, etc…), maybe we’d exist in a better world – and almost certainly be looking at a more beneficial future.

However, the vast array of difficulties and barriers to this “ideal calibration” make it hard to attain this kind of sustained pursuit as an individual, never mind as a group. The doctor goes into more detail:

The Fallible, Human Lenses We Look Through

As human beings we see through lenses, we see through our own perception of values and meaning – and it is often hard to escape this.

One potential lens is the lens through which we view the future in general. Nowadays Doctor Hanson believes that many of us have either the “ecological collapse” vision of the future, or the “tech savior” vision of the future. In the days of the cold war, more or less all American thoughts of the future had to do with freedom “winning” over communism and Russia, or freedom “loosing.”

In addition, with regards to particular sets of knowledge, it is important to note that tunnel vision can very easily occur – and that – in isolation – by only applying our own expertise to a problem, we may be skewing information towards our own proclivities or our own preferences.

Challenges of Motives

Very much intertwined with this issues of how we look at the future of humanity is the issue of “why.” Two great quotes from my chat with the Doctor Hanson explain a bit about where our conversation headed:

“I think almost all talk of the non-immediate future has almost always been an indirect way of talking about the present time.”

“Hardly anyone ACTUALLY thinks about the ACTUAL future.”

In the doctor’s view, it is very difficult for most of us to escape our day-to-day concerns and thoughts, and that when we do, it is still generally a representation of what we think / feel / value in the present. He believes that this is done through stories, but that we do this internally as well.

He says “We look at mirrors, not truly into the future.” Our future stories are just tales to explore and bring to light our ideas and values in the present – and Doctor Hanson believes that man has almost always done this with his “future” projections.

As human beings, we are not driven by the abstract idea of a better future, nor are we naturally geared to think that much of anything other than the immediate future. When we “work to benefit the future,” we are really working towards other, more motivating human ends such as acceptance, fame, significance, etc… – none of which really necessitate a vigilant and accurate focus on prediction and guiding towards a beneficial future (again, these are all pretty darn abstract ideas).

In groups, Doctor Hanson believes our odds aren’t much better. I asked him about his perspective on events like the Singularity Summit – and if these events are helping to create that kind of ideal collaborative, vigilant discernment of a beneficial future. He believes that in general, these events focus on short-term technical trends, and really end up being networking events for engineers and people within the tech space – each with their own set of motives not necessarily tied to the abstract idea of a beneficial future.

Challenges of Representation

Doctor Hanson presents yet another potential conundrum in sharing our ideas about the future. One of the problems is that in and of itself, people care very little about the future. In despribing how most people feel about the future as such, Dr. Hanson said:


Youch. Alas, it’s important to take this into consideration, because as someone vigilantly aiming to guide a beneficial future through technology, policy, science, etc…, we’ll inherently have a hard time making it “matter” if it doesn’t involve the present. This is one of the reasons Doctor Hanson believes that we have so much “sensationalism” about stories of the future.

In addition to the fact that many of these future ideas are explored in fiction novels – anyone aiming to convey ideas about the future not only has the task of accurate prediction and collaboration with others in ensuring the viability of future trends and happenings, but also has the “marketing” job of selling others on paying attention.

Without making an idea “sexy,” you might never get it across – which could be yet another force pulling futurists away from accuracy and towards hot air / sensationalism.

Steps Forward

In our talk we didn’t (not surprisingly) come up with any kind of conclusive long-term plan for bringing about this vigilant collaboration. Doctor Hanson has some ideas about leveraging the activity of betting as a way to hold people accountable and attached to future developments and outcomes (I’ll be reading more of his work on this) – but we both agreed that uniting the world in this pursuit would be difficult, despite it’s tremendous importance.

What we could discern, is that there are innumerable factors that potentially work against doing the job of guiding a beneficial future for humanity, but that the importance of the task shouldn’t at all keep us from aiming to head down this path of vigilant, collaborative, “best-future” discernment.

If it is to happen at all, we’ll need “checks and balances” in the form of technical knowledge (to fight tunnel vision), in the form of motivational guidance (we must be accountable to an abstract idea of a beneficial future and fight the immediate human tendencies to be pulled by a force that would more “naturally” guide us), and more.

The question is – HOW is this done, and what is the most beneficial path toward the attainment of this end? I’m off to dig into Dr. Hanson’s current work in order to explore the idea further, and I’m excited to catch up with him again to further these ideas.

-Daniel Faggella

PS: To learn more about Doctor Hanson, you can visit his main website here – and explore some of his ideas about gambling an accountability, click here.