Mogensen writes (p. 20):
We might be especially interested in assessing acts that are directly aimed at improving the long-run future of Earth-originating civilization...These might include efforts to reduce the risk of near-term extinction for our species: for example, by spreading awareness about dangers posed by synthetic biology or artificial intelligence.
The problem is that we do not have good evidence of the efficacy of such interventions in achieving their ultimate aims. Nor is such evidence in the offing. The idea that the future state of human civilization could be deliberately shaped for the better arguably did not take hold before the work of Enlightenment thinkers like Condorcet (1822) and Godwin (1793). Unfolding over time- scales that defy our ability to make observations, efforts to alter the long-run trajectory of Earth- originating civilization therefore resist evidence-based assessment, forcing us to fall back on intuitive conjectures whose track record in domains that are amenable to evidence-based assessment is demonstrably poor (Hurford 2013). This is not a case where it can be reasonably claimed that there is good evidence, readily available, to constrain our decision making.
These concerns are forceful, but don’t seem to generalize to all intervention types aimed at improving the long-term future. If one believes that the readily available evidence is insufficient to constrain our decision making, one still can accumulate resources to be disbursed at a later time when good enough evidence emerges. Although we may at present be radically uncertain about the sign and the magnitude of most far-future interventions, the intervention of accumulating resources for future disbursal does not itself appear to be subject to such radical uncertainty.
Robin Hanson, Paul Christiano, and others have made similar points in the past.
This post describes attempts to help the future as speculative and non-robust in contrast to helping people today. But it doesn’t at all address the very robust strategy of simply saving resources for use in the future. That may not be the best strategy, but surely one can’t complain about its robustness.
There is some debate about this question today, of whether there are currently good opportunities to reduce existential risk. The general consensus appears to be that serious extinction risks are much more likely to exist in the future, and it is ambiguous whether we can do anything productive about them today.However, there does appears to be a reasonable chance that such opportunities will exist in the future, with significant rather than tiny impacts. Even if we don’t do any work to identify them, the technological and social situation will change in unpredictable ways. Even foreseeable technological developments over the coming centuries present plausible extinction risks. If nothing else, there seems to be a good chance that the existence of machine intelligence will provide compelling opportunities to have a long-term impact unrelated to the usual conception of existential risk (this will be the topic of a future post).If we believe this argument, then we can simply save money (and build other forms of capacity) until such an opportunity arises.
By accumulating resources for the future, we give increased power to whatever decision-makers in the future we bequeath these resources. (Whether these decision-makers are us in 20 years, or our descendants in 200 years.)
In a clueless world, why do we think that increasing their power is good? What if those future decision makers make a bad decision, and the increased resources we’ve given them mean the impact is worse?
In other words, if we are clueless today, why will we be less clueless in the future? One might hope cluelessness decreases monotonically over time, as we learn more, but so does the probability of a large mistake.
Indefinite accumulation of resources probably also increases the chance of being targeted by resource-seeking groups with military & political power.