Issue One

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01

Speculations

Topics covered

  • Biology
  • Energy
  • Engineering
  • Math
  • Nature
  • Philosophy

Contributors

  • Matt Southey
  • Jonathan Ratcliffe
  • James Yorke
  • Casey Handmer
  • Stephen Hsu
  • Allison Duettmann
  • Xander Balwit
Letter from the editor

by Xander Balwit

The Latecomer believes the future depends on present speculation. The path that history takes is often prescribed by the stories we tell ourselves about it. Although we are constrained by reality, the choice between different possible futures is usually not a “scientific” one. What determines our final values is often cultural history, which blinkers us to more radical possibilities and dangers. These abstractions are guiding lights for what we eventually become.

All visions of the future are predicated on our continued survival. If we destroy ourselves prematurely we won’t have any future at all. But such risks are themselves speculative—what are the risks from technologies that do not yet exist? If you received empirical evidence that unaligned superintelligence presents a real risk, then it’s likely too late. Many existential risks need to be prevented from happening even once—we’ll be lucky if they remain hypotheticals.

The Latecomer is speculative, in that it assumes that we move toward goals that are birthed imaginatively but built scientifically. Speculation is the generator of positive futures, and insurance against catastrophic failure.

This first issue has plenty of strange futures. Allison Deuttman writes on how close we are to a future of molecular manufacturing, and what’s holding us back. In my interview with Steve Hsu we talk about the future of machinic and biological intelligence, and how they intersect. Casey Handmer makes the case that abundant green energy is not only going to beat climate change, but also unleash our technological potential.

We also have articles that explore the history of the future—how historical contingencies become permanent values. Almost fifty years ago James Yorke named the field of “Chaos Theory”—in his retrospective, he considers what chaos means for our prediction abilities. Jonathan Ratcliffe compares Russian Cosmism with contemporary Longtermism and illuminates their shared ideological ancestor. Finally, Xander Balwit interrogates the pricing of nature, and how we’ll value it when it ceases being productive.

Hopefully these articles educate our intuition about possible futures. Thanks for reading our first issue.

Matt Southey
Editor in Chief

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Issue Two

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02

Possibilities

Topics covered

  • Biology
  • Longtermism
  • Nuclear
  • Philosophy

Contributors

  • Matt Southey
  • Eric Schwitzgebel
  • Richard Yetter Chappell
  • Niko McCarty
  • Kevin Esvelt, Ben Mueller, and Vaishnav Sunil
  • Matthew Gentzel
Letter from the editor

by Matthew Gentzel

In EM Forster's 1909 novella The Machine Stops, humans live in underground caves after a pandemic has devastated the world. Humans communicate with one another via video calls through networked screens, and their daily well-being is handled by a single powerful machine.

Many of Forster's speculations were wrong, a few were right, some may be too early to call. That being said, Forster was writing fiction, not attempting anything more than the minimal plausibility required to suspend a reader's disbelief. And yet, his vision of a technologically mediated reality is compelling, even across the chaotic span of the 20th century. At many points in the last hundred years, history could have taken a different turn and our present would have been radically different. Forster could have missed the mark entirely.

In my first letter, I discussed how the futures that we target are imaginatively generated but built scientifically. Wherever our desires come from, they are not being constructed in the same way a car engine is. Our desired goals represent one source of human-influenced contingencies. It can be hard to predict where our hopes and fears will take us; perhaps concern over superintelligent AI may aid in its creation.

Our past is also available for imaginative construction. If our ancestors were given different goals and dice rolls, we would have a different present. We need not only speculate on future hypotheses, we can also counterfactually think through alternative histories. For instance, "what would our present be like if the Cuban missile crisis hadn't happened?" These imagined realities are possible worlds: worlds which are coherent and logically sensible but just so happen to not be the actual world we find ourselves in.

The second issue of The Latecomer explores some of these possibilities.

In an interview and article, Eric Schwitzgebel asks whether it's even worth thinking about the very far future. He argues that it isn't—at a sufficiently large time scale it becomes impossible to determine the outcomes of our actions. In response, Richard Yetter Chappell writes that even if we can't make precise calculations, we can still make reasonable inferences about what should be done to safeguard the future.

Niko McCarty's article explores the history of how we ended up with our current view of the cell. For instance, our laboratory equipment have given us the mistaken view that proteins are merely fixed crystalline structures rather than wiggling strings. Esvelt, Mueller, and Sunil offer an implicit critique of the COVID-19 response—we failed to rigorously identify essential workers and give them sufficient protection. Lastly, Matt Gentzel looks at how difficult it has been to reduce the risk of nuclear war due to the phenomenon of risk compensation.

Thinking through counterfactuals can give us an opportunity to reflect on historical opportunities and mistakes. With any luck, these articles will aid our understanding of history on behalf of the future.

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