singer198_Sanka VidanagamaNurPhoto via Getty Images_galaxy Sanka VidanagamaNurPhoto via Getty Images

The Hinge of History

The dangers of treating extinction risk as humanity’s overriding concern should be obvious. Viewing current problems through the lens of existential risk to our species can shrink those problems to almost nothing, while justifying almost anything that increases our odds of surviving long enough to spread beyond Earth.

PRINCETON – Twelve years ago, during the International Year of Astronomy that marked the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of a telescope, I wrote “The Value of a Pale Blue Dot” – a reflection on how astronomy has revealed a vast universe filled with an unimaginable number of stars, thus shrinking the significance of our sun and our planet. The “pale blue dot” refers to how the Earth appears in a 1990 photograph taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it reached the outer limits of our solar system. The essay suggests that the knowledge gained from astronomy “forces us to acknowledge that our place in the universe is not particularly significant.”

A recent blog post by Holden Karnofsky has led me to reconsider that thought. Karnofsky is co-CEO of Open Philanthropy, a foundation that researches the best opportunities for philanthropic grant-making, and publishes the reasons for its decisions. Thinking about the long-term significance of today’s philanthropic decisions is therefore part of Karnofsky’s role. He is thinking very long term indeed.

Karnofsky points out that we could be living “at the very beginning of the tiny sliver of time during which the galaxy goes from nearly lifeless to largely populated.” That “tiny sliver of time” began, we might say, with the first use of tools by our ancestors, around three million years ago. It will end when our descendants – who might be digital minds, rather than biological organisms – inhabit the entire galaxy, perhaps ushering in a civilization consisting of an enormous number of conscious beings that would last for tens of billions of years. There is a good chance, Karnofsky argues, that this process of populating the galaxy will begin during this century. By 2100, we could develop the technology to construct self-sufficient settlements on other planets.

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