The top 5 things that make us tick
- We advocate for the long-run
- We value results
- We adapt to current needs
- We stay true to our mission
- We engage the public
1. The long-run: Focus on the undervalued
At Foresight, we work on issues that have the potential to fundamentally reshape the future, including AI, Nanotechnology and Biotechnology. The long-term impact of these issues is often neglected because it is difficult to grasp the importance of the long-run and because there is disagreement about which issues will be the most important down the line. Notwithstanding this uncertainty, we can make educated guesses about both the importance of future life and about what to focus on:
Why we care for the long-run:
Existential-risk.org conservatively estimates that if we assume humans can remain on the earth for another billion years and one billion people can live on the earth sustainably at once, the earth could host another 10¹⁶ lives, or: 10000000000 0000000000 000000 lives. According to this estimate, the expected value of reducing existential risks by 0.00001% (one millionth of a percentage point) is ten times the value of a billion human lives right now. Even if we cannot accurately predict the future, this very conservative estimate shows that even if we discounted the importance of future life, we still have strong reasons to consider it when deciding on how to act in the here and now.
Why we do what we do:
At Foresight, we focus on supporting beneficial innovation that lies at the intersection of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and Artificial Intelligence. While there is uncertainty regarding which issues will be important on the very long-run, many organizations’ vigorous investigations have led to similar results: Most organizations focused on existential risk (80000 hours, The Open Philanthropy project, Future of Life Institute, Future of Humanity Institute, Global Priorities Project) include biosecurity, nanotechnology, and AI in the top-five issues to be worked on today. In fact, Artificial Intelligence safety is often featured as #1, even topping research on how to rate these risks.
At Foresight we do not claim to be singular actors in working toward a bright future. However, even if our contribution reduces the risk of extinction only by a millionth of a millionth of one percentage point this work could be worth as much as ten times the value of a thousand human lives right now. And this is based only on the conservative estimate of potential human life on earth from above; it doesn’t consider potential human life in the universe (estimated at 10⁵⁴ human-brain-emulation subjective life-years) and it doesn’t consider non-human species which can be helped with the beneficial use of these technologies. It’s true that the span and potential of future life is not determined yet, but rather than taking this as an excuse for not caring about the future, we take this as a call to action to enable the best of the possible futures!
As a Foresight member put it: “The scientific community often gets stuck in what works and doesn’t think about what could be — Foresight brings us together to think about the long-term vision that we have, the end-goal.”
2. Results-oriented : Doing good now
Our ultimate focus is on the long-term well-being of current and future species. However, we acknowledge that it’s a long way and that there are many important problems that we face today. This is why we focus on projects that are not only valuable towards the long-term vision, but whose advancement has a positive impact that can be seen right here, right now. Instead of dreaming up abstract visions of the future, we focus on creating that future via small steps that deliver practical results now, for instance via our technical workshops:
Example: Medicine Workshop
The most recent numbers of the International Research on Cancer (IARC) estimates that in 2012 there were 14.1 mio new cancer cases and 8.2 mio cancer deaths worldwide, making cancer the second most frequent cause of death globally. It has been predicted that 2030 the figure will increase to 21. mio new cancer cases and 13 mio cancer related deaths. This predicted increase is a result of the growth and aging of the population and the higher adoption of western lifestyle habits, like smoking and maintaining a poor diet.
Our 2015 Atomic Precision for Medicine Workshop intended to help in the advancement of cancer research by proposing a research project that can provide cancer treatment based on telomeres. Other projects discussed in the Workshop White Paper include artificial immune systems from modular molecules, artificial organs and DNA robots to treat type-1 diabetes, one of the fastest growing diseases worldwide according to the WHO.
As a Medicine Workshop participant put it: “ I love this kind of cross- fertilization — and that is what Foresight Institute does — they bring people to one table and open up the dialogue for anything that anybody wants to bring”
Example: Energy Workshop
Sustainable production, handling, and consumption of energy are some of the most important policy topics today. Each will be a significant contributor to climate change in the future but also has implications for more immediate environmental damage. Our 2016 Atomic Precision for Energy workshop brought together leading scientists to hatch out projects that aim to counter this crucial problem with innovative solutions. Some of the projects proposed in the Workshop Whitepaper included sunlight-driven CO2 reduction, light-based desalination, nanostructural self-assembly, atomically precise asymmetric catalysis and an atomically precise 3D printer. Since sustainable energy production is a topic that may be neglected in the coming years, the need for workshops like this remains critical. The need to focus on creative, innovative solutions for the future is more important now than ever.
As an Energy workshop participant put it: “I am used to conferences being very passive — and this is not a passive workshop. We are doing an incredible amount of activities and brainstorming!”
3. Relevance: Adapting to current needs
One topic that was raised many times by workshop participants, was the lack of technological tools required by scientists to advance their research, eg. for the design and manipulation of atomically precise objects. We listened closely to these concerns and initiated a workshop to solve the problem: “Artificial Intelligence for Scientific Progress”. This workshop gave leading scientists the chance to work together with experts and hackers in the Artificial Intelligence field — narrowly defined — to advance their own research or develop entirely new research projects. Proposed projects ranged from “machine learning based atomic simulation for nano-structures” and “data standards for collaborative nano-science and AI” and “recurrent neural nets for learning to act”. The full report, project proposals, workshop video and concept map will soon be accessible on the workshop page.
As an AI workshop participant put it: “The workshop was the best-organized exchange of ideas and incubator of connections I have ever been involved with.”
4. Perseverance: Staying true to our mission
Foresight was founded in 1986 on a vision for the emerging field of nanotechnology, in which capabilities in several areas of science and technology allow for the the fabrication of complex products “by maneuvering things atom by atom” as Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman put it. Since Foresight’s inception, we have tirelessly supported this vision through our Feynman Prizes, the Feynman Grand Prize, our Guidelines, the Roadmap, public education, and policy advocacy. This year, exactly 30 years after Foresight sparked the nanotechnology revolution, a joint Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, a former Feynman Prize winner, for his work on molecular machines. Naturally, this milestone is not the end of the road. We at Foresight will continue to promote the vision of advanced molecular nanotechnology — and will do so with increasing efforts, as time is a crucial element: Nick Bostrom estimates that the potential for ~10 ²⁹ human lives is lost every second that colonization of our local supercluster in the galaxy is delayed -and cites nanotechnology (which has the potential to extract a computational power of 10 ⁴² operations for second from a star) as a vital milestone to realizing this potential.
5. Education: Technology shouldn’t look like magic
We believe that inclusion of the public is key to ensuring safe and sound technological progress. Analogous to the term open-source, which was coined by our Co-Founder, Christine Peterson, we believe that education and reasoned debate are vital. As a new PEW study suggests this year, a majority of US citizens expressed that they would be worried about human-enhancing technologies such as gene-editing (68%), brain chips (69%), synthetic blood (63%) and reported that they would not want them. While concerns about such technologies are valid, they don’t always seem to be based on an analysis of the risks and benefits of the procedure. Foresight’s mission is to educate the public to help each person arrive at an informed decision about the matters — not based on media fear-mongering, the Valley’s risk-blind techno-optimism, but based on reason, facts, and arguments.
One way we achieve this is by laying out the most important issues translated from science to more accessible language. For instance, our president’s article for the World Economic Forum laying out the top 9 issues in artificial intelligence for the public and decision makers to consider when making up their minds. Another way we educate is by providing the public with varying arguments on a given topic, rather than to a pre-tailored expert opinion. This is why our public event on November 19 was in the style of debates, rather than keynote speakers. The four debates “Tomorrow and the Day After”, “Drop Everything to Work on AI”, “Life, Longer and Better”, and “Goodbye Nation-states” had stellar speakers, who debated with the public and later at dinner with Foresight members until late into the night.
As a member of the press put it: “This was the best-curated conference I have ever attended. Each panelist was eloquent and engaging and each session as fascinating and exciting as the one before. An utterly unique experience in all my years of conference-going.”
We focus on the Long-term (1) without neglecting the importance of immediate results and consequence (2). We keep adapting (3) while staying true to our mission (4). Finally, we take everyone with us by encouraging public participation in our work (5). Please donate to allow us to continue doing so.
Allison Duettmann — email@example.com