Nick Bostrom should step down as Director of FHI
Nick Bostrom should step down as Director of FHI. He should move into a role as a Senior Research Fellow at FHI, and remain a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University.
I don’t seek to minimize his intellectual contribution. His seminal 2002 paper on existential risk launched a new sub-field of existential risk research (building on many others). The 2008 book on Global Catastrophic Risks he co-edited was an important part of bringing together this early field. 2014’s Superintelligence put AI risk squarely onto the agenda. And he has made other contributions across philosophy from human enhancement to the simulation hypothesis. I’m not denying that. I’m not seeking to cancel him and prevent him from writing further papers and books. In fact, I want him to spend more time on that.
But I don’t think he’s been a particularly good Director of FHI. These difficulties are demonstrated by and reinforced by his Apology. I think he should step down for the good of FHI and the field. This post has some hard truths and may be uncomfortable reading, but FHI and the field are more important than that discomfort.
Bostrom was already struggling as Director. In the past decade, he’s churned through 5-10 administrators, due to his persistent micromanagement. He discouraged investment in the relationship with the University and sought to get around/streamline/reduce the bureaucracy involved with being part of the University.
All of this contributed to the breakdown of the relationship with the Philosophy Faculty (which FHI is a part of). This led the Faculty to impose a hiring freeze a few years ago, preventing FHI from hiring more people until they had resolved administrative problems. Until then, FHI could rely on a constant churn of new people to replace the people burnt out and/or moving on. The hiring freeze stopped the churn. The hiring freeze also contributed in part to the end of the Research Scholars Program and Cotton-Barratt’s resignation from FHI. It also contributed in part to the switch of almost all of the AI Governance Research Group to the Center for the Governance of AI.
Then in January 2023, Bostrom posted an Apology for an Old Email.
In my personal opinion, this statement demonstrated his lack of aptitude and lack of concern for his important role. These are sensitive topics that need to be handled with care. But the Apology had a glib tone, reused the original racial slur, seemed to indicate he was still open to discredited ‘race science’ hypotheses, and had an irrelevant digression on eugenics. I personally think these are disqualifying views for someone in his position as Director. But also, any of these issues would presumably have been flagged by colleagues or a communications professional. It appears he didn’t check this major statement with anyone or seek feedback. Being Director of a major research center in an important but controversial field requires care, tact, leadership and attention to downside risks. The Apology failed to demonstrate that.
The Apology has had the effect of complicating many important relationships for FHI: with the University, with staff, with funders and with collaborators. Bostrom will now struggle even more to lead the center.
First, University. The Faculty was already concerned, and Oxford University is now investigating. Oxford University released a statement to The Daily Beast:
“The University and Faculty of Philosophy is currently investigating the matter but condemns in the strongest terms possible the views this particular academic expressed in his communications. Neither the content nor language are in line with our strong commitment to diversity and equality.”
British universities are conscious of these problematic issues. For example, in 2019 Noah Carl was dismissed as a Junior Research Fellow from a Cambridge University college after an investigation into his problematic research on ‘race and intelligence’, and an open letter signed by 1,000 people. If Bostrom stays as Director, the hiring freeze will stay and the relationship with the Faculty and University will continue to be bad.
Second, staff. As previously noted, most of AI governance left, and the Research Scholars Program ended. There is currently no-one listed under “Research Support” (presumably the administrative side of FHI) on the team page. Jonas Sandbrink, FHI’s sole remaining full-time researcher in the Biosecurity Research Group, recently resigned—noting the “upsetting behaviour and careless attitude of FHI’s director regarding important issues of social justice and basic human decency”. If Bostrom stays as Director, FHI will continue to struggle to retain and attract talent.
Third, funders. Dustin Moskovitz, with Cari Tuna one of the main funders of Open Philanthropy, tweeted about posts made by Rohit Krishnan and Habiba Islam, noting how important it is to approach discussion of these dangerous topics with remarkable care: “extraordinary, dangerous claims demand extraordinary, ~unassailable evidence. If you make them without it, you lose credibility and trust swiftly”. “It only takes one person having that latent belief and acting on it for discussion of the relevant facts to become dangerous (and thus merit care)”. “It’s empirically, demonstrably dangerous” and “you ha[ve] to speak about them carefully”. Moreover, one of Open Philanthropy’s four operating values is inclusiveness, and they have emphasized this in proactive outreach to candidates from underrepresented backgrounds in their hiring. Open Philanthropy is FHI’s biggest historic donor. I would be amazed if they had not raised these problems with FHI.
Fourth, collaborators. CEA released a statement condemning Bostrom’s “flawed and reprehensible words”. CEA shares an office building with FHI and has been a close collaborator with FHI. Peter Wildeford wrote a personal post criticizing the Apology. Wildeford was writing in a personal capacity, but it is obviously relevant that he is the co-CEO of Rethink Priorities, a major research center in the field of existential risk. The acting Director of CSER tweeted that “the apology should have been an opportunity for a clear and unequivocal disavowal of ‘race science’ [...] I am profoundly disappointed that it was not.” GCRI also released a statement on Race and Intelligence. CSER and GCRI are other existential risk research centers. If Bostrom stays as Director, FHI will continue to struggle to maintain its relationships with existing collaborators and to establish new ones.
In conclusion, for the good of FHI and the field, Bostrom should step aside as Director and FHI should find another person to be Director. It’s not the case that he’s irreplaceable. Other people could be Director of FHI, and probably do a better job—especially now since the Apology.
Bostrom should step back from this particular high profile role, which he was already struggling in and which has become acutely difficult since his Apology. Again, I would imagine that he gets to stay a Professor at Oxford University—one of the most prestigious jobs in the world. And he would continue his research and writing. His webpage notes that he’s currently working on a book project, has released two papers on the ethics of (future) digital minds, and is working on detecting internal states of potential moral significance in large transformer models. That all sounds like fascinating and plausibly important work. He doesn’t need to be the administrative lead of a research center to do this work. Indeed, he would do better without the distractions of administrative work.
FHI and field would do better if he moved roles.
This post is anonymised to avoid interpersonal drama, not because I’m worried about any career blowback.