Dr Owen Cotton-Barratt

On long timescales, where is humanity headed? What are the big uncertainties? What does that mean for decisions today? In this series of lectures, we will tackle these issues, and explore the questions that feed into them. Many are multidisciplinary, and progress often draws on knowledge and tools from economics and other sciences, philosophy, and mathematics.

We will look at the progress made in the last few years by researchers, including those at the Future of Humanity Institute, a multidisciplinary research institute within the Oxford Martin School. We will highlight important open questions, and invite participants to share their expertise and discuss how progress might be made.

These seminars are aimed at researchers in any discipline who have an interest in long-term and big-picture thinking. Although we aim to quickly reach open research questions, the talks will serve as an introduction to the area, and no prior knowledge is required.

See the recordings here.

The format will be a talk of around 40 minutes, and 20 minutes of discussion.

They will be held 3-4pm on Wednesdays, at the Future of Humanity Institute, Suite 1, 1st Floor, Littlegate House, OX1 1PT.


1st Week – Wednesday 14th October
Big picture thinking — Owen Cotton Barratt
What are the big questions? How can we make any progress on these? A discussion of topics and methodology, and an overview of the rest of the seminar series.

2nd Week – Wednesday 21st October
Grand futures — Dr Toby Ord
What could a spacefaring civilisation achieve? What would it look like for humanity to reach our full potential? More generally, what is the impact of intelligence on the physical structure of the universe at the large scale?

3rd Week – Wednesday 28th October
Existential risk — Owen Cotton Barratt
What kind of event or process could cause human extinction, or otherwise curtail our potential? How concerned should we be?

4th Week – Wednesday 4th November
Responding to existential risk — Owen Cotton Barratt
Which features make some risks particularly threatening? How can we eventually intervene? What could society be doing today?

5th Week – Wednesday 11th November
Superintelligence — Andrew Critch
Could we create artificial intelligence or other beings much smarter than ourselves? How? What would this mean for the future? Could we affect the process in a positive way?

 6th Week – Wednesday 18th November
Observer effects — Dr Anders Sandberg
Situations with more observers are more often observed. Can we conclude that we’re likely to go extinct soon? What does this tell us about life elsewhere in the universe?

7th Week – Wednesday 25th November
Great unknowns — Owen Cotton Barratt
How should we act in the face of great empirical uncertainty? How much can we rely on models? Should we let our actions be guided by speculative small chances of enormous payoffs?

8th Week – Wednesday 2nd December
Differential progress and information hazards — Owen Cotton Barratt
The long-term trajectory of humanity is likely to be affected by the direction of progress more than its speed. How can we identify and affect this? When are we better not sharing information?

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