Nick Bostrom Made the World Fear AI. Now He Asks: What if It Fixes Everything?

Philosopher Nick Bostrom is surprisingly cheerful for someone who has spent so much time worrying about ways that humanity might destroy itself. In photographs he often looks deadly serious, perhaps appropriately haunted by the existential dangers roaming around his brain. When we talk over Zoom, he looks relaxed and is smiling.

Bostrom has made it his life’s work to ponder far-off technological advancement and existential risks to humanity. With the publication of his last book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, in 2014, Bostrom drew public attention to what was then a fringe idea—that AI would advance to a point where it might turn against and delete humanity.

To many in and outside of AI research the idea seemed fanciful, but influential figures including Elon Musk cited Bostrom’s writing. The book set a strand of apocalyptic worry about AI smoldering that recently flared up following the arrival of ChatGPT. Concern about AI risk is not just mainstream but also a theme within government AI policy circles.

Bostrom’s new book takes a very different tack. Rather than play the doomy hits, Deep Utopia: Life and Meaning in a Solved World, considers a future in which humanity has successfully developed superintelligent machines but averted disaster. All disease has been ended and humans can live indefinitely in infinite abundance. Bostrom’s book examines what meaning there would be in life inside a techno-utopia, and asks if it might be rather hollow. He spoke with WIRED over Zoom, in a conversation that has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Will Knight: Why switch from writing about superintelligent AI threatening humanity to considering a future in which it’s used to do good?

Nick Bostrom: The various things that could go wrong with the development of AI are now receiving a lot more attention. It’s a big shift in the last 10 years. Now all the leading frontier AI labs have research groups trying to develop scalable alignment methods. And in the last couple of years also, we see political leaders starting to pay attention to AI.

There hasn’t yet been a commensurate increase in depth and sophistication in terms of thinking of where things go if we don’t fall into one of these pits. Thinking has been quite superficial on the topic.

When you wrote Superintelligence, few would have expected existential AI risks to become a mainstream debate so quickly. Will we need to worry about the problems in your new book sooner than people might think?

As we start to see automation roll out, assuming progress continues, then I think these conversations will start to happen and eventually deepen.

Social companion applications will become increasingly prominent. People will have all sorts of different views and it’s a great place to maybe have a little culture war. It could be great for people who couldn’t find fulfillment in ordinary life but what if there is a segment of the population that takes pleasure in being abusive to them?

In the political and information spheres we could see the use of AI in political campaigns, marketing, automated propaganda systems. But if we have a sufficient level of wisdom these things could really amplify our ability to sort of be constructive democratic citizens, with individual advice explaining what policy proposals mean for you. There will be a whole bunch of dynamics for society.

Would a future in which AI has solved many problems, like climate change, disease, and the need to work, really be so bad?