I had a great conversation with Justin Shovelain recently, and we happened to chat about some advantages SIAI has compared to the average non-profit; everyone involved is on the high end of intelligence, and there are good arguments that the likely impact is exceptionally large, which can appeal to donors who truly care about impact. SIAI has a number of disadvantages, like the many inferential steps required to realize the importance of the work, but we weren’t discussing those just then.
Another strength is that this is not a “niche” concern. Helping impoverished third-world farmers raise capital is a great thing, but it’s relatively easy to stop caring about something so distant. In contrast, it’s somewhat harder to look at everybody around you and know we’ll all be dead if these kinds of efforts don’t succeed, and then decide it’s not really that important.
Obviously, this kind of thing pushes me towards existential risk reduction. There’s something else though, which is my long-standing desire to “be a hero”. Watching movies, playing games, reading books; my heroes were mostly fictional people, rising to great and noble heights when everything was at stake. Like most folks, I’d love to emulate my heroes. Now that everything is at stake, I figured that now is the time.
Though I’m thankful for this desire overall, it’s caused some surprising trouble. One problem is that most of my heroes aren’t real people with real human psychologies, another is that I often wind up needlessly trying to replicate unimportant details.
A week and a half ago I had some useful thoughts about this, which have remained useful past the 3 day period in which many seemingly good ideas sputter and fade. After thinking about how best to convey them, I’ve decided that just copying from my journal is probably most effective. This was written for me – hence the numerous phrasings and points of emphasis – but I don’t think I could say it better for others. I did add a little extra spacing.
I believe that many readers don’t have a strong desire to emulate fictional heroes, but someone may, and perhaps many readers can take something from this regardless.
While I’ve long known of the danger to our entire world from existential risk, I seem to have perceived this as “the real world is a video game world, for which video game personas are appropriate”. However, I recall thinking back to when I first read about these things, and I recall the perception being slightly different. Hmm….how to say. I believe it is that recently, I have tried to adapt myself into a video game persona. Before, it was more of a realization that we play versions of the video game characters.
That there really is the danger, and here we are in our apartments (suggesting imagery of the ‘Ton), trying to save the world. It wasn’t “Let’s try to be Paul Denton”. It was more “We ARE Paul Denton”. (By the way, Paul wouldn’t be that bad to be, as he’s rather human. He dates, etc.) A realization that the world really is in danger, and WE ARE THE ONES WHO MAY NEED TO STOP IT. Perhaps this: we don’t need to adapt ourselves to become video game characters. We don’t have to gain their style or lifestyle, because we are EQUIVALENTLY heroes, just as much as they. We are the heroes of the real world. Or perhaps, that we don’t have to change ourselves to live like they do in order to feel like our story is just as cool, in order to feel like we are finally being heroes. Rather, we are ALREADY being heroes by the fact of what we are attempting to do. We are ALREADY “them”, and our story is already and immediately as cool. Hah, I keep trying at this. A thought, which I think I may actually have voiced back then: We are not approximations of them, in which case we would never be quite as cool, or quite as heroic. Rather, all those stories were approximations of the heroes we are and will be. Hah, I think that gives it pretty well, but to lay it down with yet another angle: who makes things cool? Who is worth emulating? What is being emulated? Who are the real heroes?? Are THEY the real heroes, and we strive to be heroic by replicating their actions and lifestyle? Or are WE the real heroes, for which all those stories of fictional heroes were merely exaggerated caricatures of the heroes we would become, exciting tales which create the before-bed snack on which real heroes are raised? Specifically to me, will my life be exciting because of how close I will get to approximating Morgan Everett, or Paul Denton, or Dowd, or JC? Or will it be exciting because I live the the story of _____ ______, who may go on to perform real heroism, to make a real difference, and hence be an actual, real hero? Are these exciting fictions the things to which we aspire, or are they mere training and spark, the things which eventually inspire a real human being to step beyond the simple and assumed boundaries of a passive life? Not into a life of austerity, or loneliness, or desolation, but a life of applying the multifold abilities we have and will develop, to accomplish something big and real in the world.
Who are the real heroes? We are.
The fictional heroes are not there for us to emulate, they are there to inspire us to become ourselves.
(A quick note: by ‘we’ I mean anyone and everyone who steps up to contribute to existential risk reduction, not just the people who have started helping already.)