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What Do We Know About How the World Might End?

What Do We Know About How the World Might End?

Update: 2024-06-051
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Rivka Galchen, a staff writer for The New Yorker, delves into the topic of existential risks in her article "Are We Doomed?" She attended a University of Chicago class called "Are We Doomed?" which examined the most serious threats to our world, including nuclear threats, bio-threats, climate change, and emerging technologies, particularly AI. The class, taught by physicists Daniel Holtz and sociologist James Evans, explored the potential for catastrophic events and the challenges of understanding and addressing these risks. Galchen found the students in the class to be surprisingly upbeat, despite the dire nature of the topics discussed. She attributes this to a selection bias, as students who are deeply concerned about these issues might not choose to take a class that focuses on them. Galchen also notes that the class discussions did not delve into overtly political territory, with students and professors focusing on a broader, more systemic perspective. The class explored pragmatic solutions to these threats, including interventions for AI safety and changes to nuclear systems. Galchen concludes that while the class did not provide definitive answers about the likelihood of catastrophic events, it offered a valuable framework for thinking about these risks and the importance of taking action, even in the face of uncertainty.

Outlines

00:00:00
Introduction

This Chapter introduces the topic of existential risks and the article "Are We Doomed?" by Rivka Galchen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Galchen attended a University of Chicago class called "Are We Doomed?" which examined the most serious threats to our world, including nuclear threats, bio-threats, climate change, and emerging technologies, particularly AI.

00:01:21
Existential Risks and the University of Chicago Class

This Chapter delves into the specific threats discussed in the "Are We Doomed?" class, including nuclear threats, bio-threats, climate change, and emerging technologies, particularly AI. The class, taught by physicists Daniel Holtz and sociologist James Evans, explored the potential for catastrophic events and the challenges of understanding and addressing these risks.

00:15:51
Student Optimism and Political Discourse

This Chapter examines the surprising optimism of the students in the "Are We Doomed?" class, despite the dire nature of the topics discussed. Galchen attributes this to a selection bias, as students who are deeply concerned about these issues might not choose to take a class that focuses on them. Galchen also notes that the class discussions did not delve into overtly political territory, with students and professors focusing on a broader, more systemic perspective.

00:23:46
Pragmatic Solutions and the Doomsday Clock

This Chapter explores the pragmatic solutions discussed in the "Are We Doomed?" class, including interventions for AI safety and changes to nuclear systems. Galchen also discusses the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic representation of the threat of global catastrophe, and how it has been used to raise awareness about existential risks.

00:29:47
Hope and Action in the Face of Uncertainty

This Chapter concludes with Galchen's reflections on the "Are We Doomed?" class and her own perspective on existential risks. She emphasizes the importance of taking action, even in the face of uncertainty, and the need to find meaning and purpose in life, even in the face of potential catastrophe.

Keywords

Existential Risk
Existential risk refers to any threat that could lead to the extinction of humanity or significantly hinder its long-term flourishing. This includes threats such as nuclear war, climate change, pandemics, and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the simulation of human intelligence processes by computer systems. It encompasses a wide range of technologies, including machine learning, deep learning, and natural language processing. AI has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of human life, but it also poses significant risks, such as the potential for autonomous weapons systems, job displacement, and the loss of human control.

Doomsday Clock
The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic representation of the threat of global catastrophe, maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It is a clock face with a minute hand that is set closer to or further from midnight, depending on the perceived threat of global catastrophe. The clock was originally created to highlight the dangers of nuclear war, but it has since been expanded to include other existential risks, such as climate change and emerging technologies.

University of Chicago
The University of Chicago is a private research university located in Chicago, Illinois. It is known for its rigorous academic programs, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. The university has a long history of intellectual inquiry and has played a significant role in shaping the fields of economics, sociology, and political science.

Nuclear War
Nuclear war is a war in which nuclear weapons are used. The use of nuclear weapons would have devastating consequences, including widespread destruction, radioactive fallout, and long-term environmental damage. The threat of nuclear war has been a major concern since the development of nuclear weapons in the mid-20th century.

Climate Change
Climate change refers to the long-term shift in global weather patterns, primarily caused by human activities that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases trap heat, leading to rising global temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and more extreme weather events. Climate change poses a significant threat to human civilization, including rising sea levels, food insecurity, and mass displacement.

Bio-threats
Bio-threats refer to the potential for biological agents, such as viruses, bacteria, or toxins, to be used as weapons. These agents can cause widespread disease and death, and they can be difficult to detect and control. The development of synthetic biology and genetic engineering has raised concerns about the potential for bio-weapons to be created and used.

Nonlinear Outcomes
Nonlinear outcomes refer to situations where small changes can lead to large and unpredictable consequences. This concept is particularly relevant to existential risks, as it suggests that even seemingly minor events could have catastrophic consequences. For example, a small change in climate could trigger a cascade of events that lead to widespread environmental damage and societal collapse.

The New Yorker
The New Yorker is a weekly American magazine known for its in-depth reporting, literary fiction, and cultural commentary. It is published by Condé Nast and is considered one of the most prestigious magazines in the United States. The New Yorker has a long history of covering important social and political issues, and it has been a platform for some of the most influential writers and journalists of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Toby Ord
Toby Ord is a philosopher and researcher at the University of Oxford. He is known for his work on existential risks, particularly his book "The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity." Ord argues that humanity faces a number of serious threats, including nuclear war, climate change, and artificial intelligence, and that we need to take steps to mitigate these risks.

Q&A

  • What are the main existential risks discussed in the article and the University of Chicago class?

    The article and class focus on nuclear threats, bio-threats, climate change, and emerging technologies, particularly AI. These are all threats that could potentially lead to the extinction of humanity or significantly hinder its long-term flourishing.

  • Why are the students in the class surprisingly upbeat despite the dire nature of the topics discussed?

    Galchen suggests that there might be a selection bias, as students who are deeply concerned about these issues might not choose to take a class that focuses on them. It's possible that the students who signed up for the class are more inclined to be optimistic and proactive in addressing these challenges.

  • How does the class approach these existential risks, and why does Galchen find this approach valuable?

    The class focuses on a broader, more systemic perspective, rather than delving into overtly political territory. Galchen finds this approach valuable because it allows for a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the challenges and potential solutions.

  • What are some of the pragmatic solutions discussed in the class for addressing these existential risks?

    The class explores interventions for AI safety, changes to nuclear systems, and other practical steps that could help mitigate these threats. The focus on pragmatic solutions highlights the importance of taking concrete action to address these risks.

  • What is the Doomsday Clock, and how does it reflect the perceived threat of global catastrophe?

    The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic representation of the threat of global catastrophe, maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It is a clock face with a minute hand that is set closer to or further from midnight, depending on the perceived threat of global catastrophe. The clock was originally created to highlight the dangers of nuclear war, but it has since been expanded to include other existential risks, such as climate change and emerging technologies.

  • How does Galchen's experience in the class influence her own perspective on existential risks?

    Galchen concludes that while the class did not provide definitive answers about the likelihood of catastrophic events, it offered a valuable framework for thinking about these risks and the importance of taking action, even in the face of uncertainty. She emphasizes the need to find meaning and purpose in life, even in the face of potential catastrophe.

  • What is the "Cathedral Building Problem" and how does it relate to the students' approach to existential risks?

    The "Cathedral Building Problem" is a concept that suggests that even in the face of impending doom, people may still find meaning and purpose in pursuing long-term goals. This concept reflects the students' willingness to engage with these challenging issues and to work towards solutions, even if the outcome is uncertain.

  • What is the significance of Galchen's article "Are We Doomed?" in the context of existential risks?

    Galchen's article provides a valuable insight into the current discourse surrounding existential risks, highlighting the challenges of understanding and addressing these threats. It also explores the importance of finding hope and purpose in the face of uncertainty, and the need for collective action to mitigate these risks.

  • What are some of the key takeaways from Galchen's discussion of the University of Chicago class?

    The class highlights the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, the need for a systemic approach to addressing existential risks, and the potential for finding hope and purpose even in the face of uncertainty. It also emphasizes the importance of taking action, even if the outcome is uncertain.

  • How does Galchen's article contribute to the broader conversation about existential risks?

    Galchen's article provides a nuanced and thought-provoking perspective on existential risks, highlighting the challenges and opportunities associated with these threats. It encourages readers to engage with these issues and to consider the implications for their own lives and the future of humanity.

Show Notes

The New Yorker staff writer Rivka Galchen joins Tyler Foggatt to discuss a class at the University of Chicago with a tantalizingly dark title: “Are We Doomed?” It’s in the interdisciplinary field of existential risk, which studies the threats posed by climate change, nuclear warfare, and artificial intelligence. Galchen, who spent a semester observing the course and its students, considers how to contend with this bleak future, and how to understand the young people who may inherit it. 
This week’s reading:


To discover more podcasts from The New Yorker, visit newyorker.com/podcasts. To send feedback on this episode, write to themail@newyorker.com.

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What Do We Know About How the World Might End?

What Do We Know About How the World Might End?

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