This could be the most important century

Will the future of humanity be wild, or boring? It’s natural to think that if we’re trying to be sober and measured, and predict what will really happen rather than spin an exciting story, it’s more likely than not to be sort of… dull.

But there’s also good reason to think that that is simply impossible. The idea that there’s a boring future that’s internally coherent is an illusion that comes from not inspecting those scenarios too closely.

At least that is what Holden Karnofsky — founder of charity evaluator GiveWell and foundation Open Philanthropy — argues in his new article series titled ‘The Most Important Century’.

The bind is this. For the first 99% of human history the global economy (initially mostly food production) grew very slowly: under 0.1% a year. But since the industrial revolution around 1800, growth has exploded to over 2% a year.

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To us in 2020 that sounds perfectly sensible and the natural order of things. But Holden points out that in fact it’s not only unprecedented, it also can’t continue for long.

The power of compounding increases means that to sustain 2% growth for just 10,000 years, 5% as long as humanity has already existed, would require us to turn every individual atom in the galaxy into an economy as large as the Earth’s today. Not super likely.

So what are the options? First, maybe growth will slow and then stop. In that case we today live in the single miniscule slice in the history of life during which the world rapidly changed due to constant technological advances, before intelligent civilization permanently stagnated or even collapsed. What a wild time to be alive!

Alternatively, maybe growth will continue for thousands of years. In that case we are at the very beginning of what would necessarily have to become a stable galaxy-spanning civilization, harnessing the energy of entire stars among other feats of engineering. We would then stand among the first tiny sliver of all the quadrillions of intelligent beings who ever exist. What a wild time to be alive!

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Isn’t there another option where the future feels less remarkable and our current moment not so special?

While the full version of the argument above has a number of caveats, the short answer is ‘not really’. We might be in a computer simulation and our galactic potential all an illusion, though that’s hardly any less weird. And maybe the most exciting events won’t happen for generations yet. But on a cosmic scale we’d still be living around the universe’s most remarkable time:

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Holden himself was very reluctant to buy into the idea that today’s civilization is in a strange and privileged position, but has ultimately concluded “all possible views about humanity’s future are wild”.

In the full series Holden goes on to elaborate on technologies that might contribute to making this the most important era in history, including computer systems that automate research into science and technology, the ability to create ‘digital people’ on computers, or transformative artificial intelligence itself – and how they might create a world much weirder than most science fiction.

And if we simply project forward available computing power, or use expert forecasts, you can make a good case that the chance that these technologies arrive in our lifetimes is above 50%.

All of these technologies offer the potential for huge upsides and huge downsides. Holden is at pains to say we should neither rejoice nor despair at the circumstance we find ourselves in. His feeling an “odd mix of intensity, urgency, confusion and hesitance”. Going forward, these issues require sober forethought about how we want the future to play out, and how we might as a species be able to steer things in that direction.

If this sort of stuff sounds nuts to you, Holden gets it — he spent the first part of his career focused on straightforward ways of helping people in poor countries. Of course this sounds weird.

But he thinks that, if you keep pushing yourself to do even more good, it’s reasonable to go from:

“I care about all people — even if they live on the other side of the world”, to “I care about all people — even if they haven’t been born yet”, to “I care about all people — even if they’re digital”.

If this idea is correct, what might it imply in practical terms? We’re not yet sure. You can see more of Holden’s thoughts on the implications here in the series.

One consequence is that our actions might have huge stakes, making it even more important to reflect on where to focus.

Some specific priorities that seem helpful include: (i) AI alignment research (ii) global priorities research to give us more strategic clarity (iii) building communities who take this idea seriously (e.g. the effective altruism community), and (iv) making it more likely that governments can make thoughtful, values-driven decisions. But most of all, we need to take this idea more seriously and understand its implications better.

To learn more, listen to our interview with Holden:

Read the full series

You can see the full series on Holden’s blog, including audio and ebook versions:

Read now

Here are all the articles in the series:

Further reading

Read next:Our current list of pressing world problems

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