Trajectory Change

Trajectory Change

In this week of the programme, we consider ‘trajectory change’ - actions which make some persistent future trajectories more likely or less likely. Such actions include reducing existential risks and improving values or institutions, which have the potential to persist and continue shaping society for a very long time. We’ll also discuss whether or not the effects of actions taken now on the long term future are so unpredictable that we should be pessimistic about our ability to do things that benefit the future.


Core materials:

Recommended reading:

Securing posterity' - Leopold Aschenbrenner

These three readings discuss accelerating economic progress as a mechanism for affecting the future. The first two articles suggest faster progress might bring about harmful trajectory change - increasing existential risk by bringing about the development of dangerous new technologies before we are equipped to deal with their effects. The third article makes the case for the long term benefits of faster economic growth and the value of economic wellbeing.

More to explore

'Flow through effects' Holden Karnofsky for GiveWell. Exploring the potential positive long term effects of economic development for the disadvantaged in our current world.
'Evidence, cluelessness and the longterm' - Hilary Greaves. Discusses complex cluelessness - the idea that we are clueless about the effects of our actions, even when their near-term effects are obvious, because they could have substantial positive or negative consequences through the ways they change the far future, and we don’t know what those consequences are.

Examples of proposals for longtermist policy changes/interventions:

'Longtermist institutional reform' - Tyler John and William MacAskill
'Age-weighted voting'- William MacAskill

Exercise: How can specific interventions improve the future?

It can sometimes be difficult to see how actions we take in our lifetimes could have beneficial effects on the long term future.

In this exercise we will break down the steps by which positive change in the short run could lead to benefits for the long term future. We will also identify the sources of uncertainty about whether this beneficial intervention in the here and now will affect the long term at all.

Pick an intervention (i.e., a specific policy recommendation) mentioned in one of these two articles, and answer the questions below.

Briefly describe the intervention here:

  1. What could be the direct positive outcomes which result from this intervention?
  2. For example, the 80,000 Hours article mentions an intervention of increasing transparency around accidents in BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories.

    One direct positive outcome of this intervention could be the government putting in place better safety measures because there is more awareness of how exactly laboratory accidents are happening.

  1. What longer term benefits could we get from those direct positive outcomes?
  2. For example, if we have better safety standards in BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, it is less likely there will be an accidental release of a dangerous engineered pathogen.

  1. What future trajectories become less likely as a result of those longer term benefits? Which become more likely?

Brainstorm ways in which the intervention could fail to improve our future trajectory. You might consider these questions:

  1. Could the intervention fail to bring about any direct positive outcomes at all?
  2. For example, the government might fail to put in place better safety standards even if they receive more information about how accidents are happening.

  1. If it does bring about direct positive outcomes, could something get in the way of these leading to longer term benefits?
  2. For example, even if we have better safety standards in BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, it is possible negligent researchers could fail to follow these safety standards, meaning the chance of a dangerous pathogen leaking isn’t reduced after all.

Next in the Introduction to Longtermism Series

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