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Robert de Neufville: on 7/7/14 at 21:26pm UTC, wrote Thanks, Rick! Looks good!

Rick Searle: on 7/6/14 at 3:00am UTC, wrote Hello Robert, I posted an article giving some publicity to your piece: ...

Robert de Neufville: on 6/7/14 at 4:31am UTC, wrote Thanks, Jeff. I think if I had time to expand upon my essay now I would...

Jeffrey Schmitz: on 6/7/14 at 4:03am UTC, wrote Robert, Clear and well written. You touched on all the points outlined for...

Edwin Klingman: on 6/5/14 at 21:10pm UTC, wrote Dear Robert, You are correct, "Be Prepared" is a good policy. But focusing...

Robert de Neufville: on 6/3/14 at 18:47pm UTC, wrote Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Tommaso. Gott's estimate is derived...

Anonymous: on 6/3/14 at 15:26pm UTC, wrote Dear Robert, I appreciated the expertise and data about catastrophic...

Robert de Neufville: on 6/1/14 at 3:43am UTC, wrote Thanks, Don. I think you're absolutely right that we have to try to make...


Georgina Woodward: "Ted, you misrepresent the linked website, there is nothing there about..." in Quantum Thermodynamics

Eckard Blumschein: "Lorraine, Evade and inevitably refer to intentions. You are stubbornly..." in Defining the Observer

Gary Simpson: "Akinbo, You have stated that Adel derived the following: E = -GMm/2a for..." in Defining Existence

Pentcho Valev: "Why Einstein's Spacetime Is Doomed "Spacetime is any mathematical model..." in What Happens Inside the...

Lorraine Ford: "Tom, Where is your definition of the “observer”, the topic of this..." in Defining the Observer

Akinbo Ojo: "Gary, While you were away Adel posted a derivation for total energy for an..." in Defining Existence

Ted Esaters: "I can't imagine a Universe with only 2 substances: time and space. Such..." in Quantum Thermodynamics

James Putnam: "Steve Agnew, Hi, A correction is in order: "It is the time it takes for..." in Alternative Models of...

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Rescuing Reality
A "retrocausal" rewrite of physics, in which influences from the future can affect the past, could solve some quantum quandaries—saving Einstein's view of reality along the way.

Untangling Quantum Causation
Figuring out if A causes B should help to write the rulebook for quantum physics.

In Search of a Quantum Spacetime
Finding the universe's wavefunction could be the key to understanding the emergence of reality.

Collapsing Physics: Q&A with Catalina Oana Curceanu
Tests of a rival to quantum theory, taking place in the belly of the Gran Sasso d'Italia mountain, could reveal how the fuzzy subatomic realm of possibilities comes into sharp macroscopic focus.

Dropping Schrödinger's Cat Into a Black Hole
Combining gravity with the process that transforms the fuzzy uncertainty of the quantum realm into the definite classical world we see around us could lead to a theory of quantum gravity.

October 25, 2016

CATEGORY: FQXi Essay Contest - Spring, 2014 [back]
TOPIC: One Cannot Live in the Cradle Forever by Robert de Neufville [refresh]
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Author Robert de Neufville wrote on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 13:01 GMT
Essay Abstract

What matters is not where exactly we choose to steer humanity, but that we steer humanity safely. We do not have the knowledge or the right to decide for future generations how they should live. But we must make sure that they survive long enough to move off the Earth and expand into the galaxy. Although we are enormously successful as a species, this may nevertheless be the most dangerous time in our history. Simply surviving the transition to a species with the power to transform or destroy a planet will be a huge task. If we do not collectively demand that governments and other institutions take the technical and political challenges we face as a species more seriously, there is no guarantee we will escape extinction.

Author Bio

Robert de Neufville has degrees in political science from Harvard and Berkeley and is an associate of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. Robert has contributed to The Economist and The Washington Monthly, and for several years wrote the Politeia column for Big Think.

Download Essay PDF File

John Brodix Merryman wrote on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 02:45 GMT

A very well laid out and authoritative description of the dangers we face, yet it seems the solutions you point to are falling short of delivering. Foundational Questions Institute is a generally physics theory geek sort of culture and this particular question is a bit out of left field for the regulars and while it seems more suited to someone of your background, it seems any expectations this issue can be resolved as an expressly political situation does seem like wishful thinking. As I see it and try to express in my own entry, we really are dealing with conceptual issues that go the very nature of reality and since humanity is reaching the current peak of its ability to progress through physical expansion and even reaching limits of how quickly technological innovation can resolve these mounting problems, a far more profound review is in order. Given your background, you will be a positive addition to this discussion and so hopefully you find time to participate. Some seem to simply enter and ignore further discussions, which goes against any hope of reaching the sort of broad based solutions necessary.


John Merryman

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 03:26 GMT
That was the wrong link. The right one.

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 21:28 GMT
Thanks for the comments, John. I haven't had a chance to look at anyone else's essay yet, but I look forward to reading yours.

Michael Allan wrote on Apr. 25, 2014 @ 03:59 GMT
Hello Robert, May I offer a short, but sincere critique of your essay? I would ask you (when you have time) to return the favour. Here's my policy on that. - Mike

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on Apr. 25, 2014 @ 21:16 GMT
I would be happy to read and comment on your essay, Mike. I'm going to try to review as many as I can over the next week or so.

Michael Allan wrote on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 06:11 GMT
Thanks Robert, (when you have time). Yours is a well rounded, well written overview of existential pitfalls and avoidance strategies. I don't feel (with John) that you over-emphasize the political vs. other stategies. But I too would have liked to find a little more that's novel in this (just speaking for myself) familiar theme of risk avoidance. - Mike

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 08:16 GMT
Thanks for the fair and thoughtful review, Mike. I should have time to really read through your essay in the next few days. I'm very interested to hear your ideas.

Michael Allan replied on May. 21, 2014 @ 20:51 GMT
(My thanks again for the helpful review, Robert.) This is just a note to say I'll be rating your essay (along with the others on my review list) some time between now and May 30. All the best, and bye for now, - Mike

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Rick Searle wrote on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 16:48 GMT
Great essay Robert.

You and the Global Catastrophic Risks Institute are doing the most important work out there. Admire you guys a lot and have written about you here:

You've got my vote, best of luck!

Rick Searle

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 23:59 GMT
Thanks, Rick. I really appreciate the support. I don't know how my essay will do in this contest, but I obviously think it's a really important issue. I'm looking forward to reading your essay and am excited to see your IEET piece, which somehow I hadn't seen before.

Rick Searle replied on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 12:25 GMT
You certainly deserve to do well, Robert, but there is a lot of luck involved in these things.

I think I first heard of the GCRI through Seth Baum’s pieces over at the IEET, and I have had some contact through email with Grant Wilson. I try to plug for you guys whenever it’s relevant to the topic I am writing on. If ever you are in need of some writing for the GCRI I would love to help. The best way to reach me or get an idea of my writing is through the IEET or at my blog.

Again, best of luck in the contest and your endeavors.


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Joe Fisher wrote on Apr. 29, 2014 @ 16:37 GMT
Dear Mr. Neufville,

You seem to have listed all of the horror items abstractions in the correct abstract chronological order, and I commend you for that. I do hope your essay does well in the competition.


Joe Fisher

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John Brodix Merryman wrote on May. 1, 2014 @ 10:10 GMT

To save you the time and effort of returning to my thread, I thought I'd post my response here.

Necessarily the question and the parameters of the contest does require packing a lot of context into a short piece. As I said, the essay is the abstract. The point of it, the turn in the road, which you seemed to have missed, is that we need to start treating money as a...

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 1, 2014 @ 19:37 GMT
I know how frustrating having people with different ideas and opinions review your work can be, John. I'm afraid didn't get the point you were trying to make about the financial system from your essay. But I do wish you the best of luck in the contest.


John Brodix Merryman replied on May. 2, 2014 @ 03:38 GMT

The way it seems to be, but I keep trying.

Money is a medium, like blood, or a road, or water in a convection cycle. When we treat it as property, then we seek to collect it, which means ever more must be added to keep commerce functioning and like a poor circulatory system, clots, tumors and high blood pressure result.

The basis of our currency is national debt...

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Ross Cevenst wrote on May. 1, 2014 @ 11:42 GMT
Hi Robert,

Thanks for a well-written, easy-to-read and well-researched essay. I particularly liked the way you frame the extinction issue as the prerequisite of all other goals. I find myself in agreement with most of what you say. The only objection I could make is that perhaps the reference to the eventual death of our species due to the Sun's enlargement is not a powerful argument because of the timescale invovled. I wonder if space colonisation, while being an absolutely vital project for Earth, might be a false hope in terms of solving the extinction problem. It seems we already have a perfectly configured "space colony" - the Earth itself. It seems if we are unable to master the sustainable management in such ideal conditions, then the far greater challenges of off-world colonies must be wildly speculative dreams. I hope not, because I agree how significant and exciting exploring the stars will be for our species.

In any case I feel you list some of the most vital challenges and suggest some beginnings to solving them. I look forward to reading more details about the solutions you hint at!

Thanks for your essay, and if you get a chance I'd love for you to take a look at my own entry!

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 1, 2014 @ 19:43 GMT
Thanks, Ross. You make a fair point. Space colonization is important in the long run because as long as all our eggs are on the single basket of Earth, we will be vulnerable to disaster. But we do have more pressing problems. For now, as Carl Sagan put it, Earth is where we make our stand. I look forward to reading your essay.



Robin Hanson wrote on May. 1, 2014 @ 14:02 GMT
You review the many reasons why we might want to steer humanities future, but then when it comes to your concrete suggestions all you say is that we should conduct more research, build inclusive global institutions, and watch for emerging threats. While it is hard to disagree much with these suggestions, it is also hard to see this as very responsive to the question. Which research should we conduct? What global institutions should be build? What threats should we watch for. We can't steer our future without far more specific answers to these questions.

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 1, 2014 @ 20:33 GMT
Thanks for the comments, Robin. My answer to the question was that we should steer so as to maximize our chances of survival rather than to construct some imagined utopia. Although I try to list the major dangers we face, I don't think we understand the risks well enough yet to honestly say exactly what we need to do. But I think you're right that I could have said more about the kind of research we need to undertake to understand the dangers we face and how to avoid them.

John C Hodge wrote on May. 2, 2014 @ 15:38 GMT
I agree that we should steer so as to maximize our chances of survival. I think this requires a reorganization of our political process.

Merely surviving must be enough. I think a secondary goal would dilute effort and neither would be achieved.

see Steering humanity's growth by John C Hodge

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 2, 2014 @ 21:55 GMT
Thanks for the comments, John. I'll take a look at your essay as soon as I get the chance.

Hoang cao Hai wrote on May. 8, 2014 @ 15:36 GMT
Dear Robert de Neufville

It's great when meet people with similar views, three methods that you are giving very useful and I also agree : we should not live in the cradle forever .

But why do you think that my solution is abstraction?

My absolute principle means: will must be the most specific and the most detailed.

Maybe our Earth was created by chance , but the by...

view entire post

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Author Robert de Neufville wrote on May. 9, 2014 @ 08:25 GMT
Thanks for your comments and for reading my essay. I responded briefly in the comments on your own essay.

Author Robert de Neufville wrote on May. 9, 2014 @ 22:36 GMT
I will be happy to read your essay and give it the rating I think it deserves, Aaron. I've been very frustrated with the apparent downvoting myself. I'll let you know when I've had a chance to go through your piece. I think I should be able to read it later today.



Michael Allan replied on May. 11, 2014 @ 08:52 GMT
Unfortunately the rating system is poorly designed, encouraging the worst behaviour among people. (Or can anyone explain why Robert's essay should deserve such a low score?) I've pretty much given up on the contest myself and try to focus instead on the discussion. At least I get a few reviews of what I've written, which otherwise is difficult for me. Your review was especially thoughtful, as are your comments generally.

I hope your score improves. Some (like myself) won't be voting till near the end of the month. You only have 7 votes, so your score can climb pretty quickly. I hope someone kicks it upstairs where it belongs. It's sad to see an essay of this quality panned at 3.9. - Mike

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 11, 2014 @ 10:21 GMT
Thanks, Mike. That's very kind of you. I can certainly understand why someone might not like my essay. But it is hard for me to believe that people are giving out such low scores to some of the essays on here in good faith. I hope that in the end the signal of honest appraisals will drown out the noise of dishonest ones.

I hope your fine essay does well too. You have been one of the most thoughtful, constructive voices here. I know I am not the only who appreciates the care you put into the essays you review. In any case, as you say, just writing the essays and getting feedback on them is a valuable exercise. The work we put in won't go to waste.

Anonymous wrote on May. 10, 2014 @ 06:52 GMT
Hi Robert,

a very well written, easy to read essay. I like the way you start with the very long term risks and get nearer and nearer in time with your tales of doom. The feeling I have reminds me of how I felt after reading "The Long Emergency. Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century" by James Howard Kunstler (Grove/Atlantic, 2005) A hopeless feeling.

You have clearly spelled out some helpful directions. More research, better governance, looking out for new threats and planning. Re. more research I found this is an interesting talk explaining why more investment on research is required to get really accurate climate models MIT Lorenz centre, John Carlson lecture

I don't think you have said how to make the world a better place other than it will be if we avoid catastrophe. My local district council has agreed to plant more fruit trees that the community will be able to harvest fruit from in the future. Which is not much but a small step towards 'future proofing' the community. It's a little ironic because in this fruit growing region vasts number of imperfect fruits are left on the trees to rot, as it is uneconomic to pay people to harvest them.

A very worrying read, expertly presented. Good luck, Georgina.

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 11, 2014 @ 10:33 GMT
Thanks for the thoughtful comments and the thoughtful links, Georgina. I really appreciate the care you take with everyone's essay. I am obviously worried about the future, but I know there are reasons to hope too. In fact, I am very optimistic about the world we can build if we avoid catastrophe. There is—as you show in your own essay—so much to look forward to. And, for what it's worth, imperfect fruit is delicious.

Jens C. Niemeyer wrote on May. 11, 2014 @ 14:25 GMT

Very well written, and a strong point that I hope will be taken more and more seriously. A lot of progress has been made in modeling and forecasting risks, but it still remains a very difficult problem for most real-world applications. It seems that there is a growing consensus that we have to put more work into quantifying global risks that threaten the survival of humanity itself. Thank you for your efforts in spreading this idea, and good luck!


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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 12, 2014 @ 00:35 GMT
Thanks, Jens. Good luck to you too!

Ajay Bhatla wrote on May. 13, 2014 @ 05:48 GMT

Very good description of the problem.

Your solution is to leave Earth and for all of us to collectively pushing the governments of the world.

You are very right when you say we cannot dictate anything much to future generations. Can we dictate to even our own generation? I think not.

So how are we going to steer to the future.

My approach defined in my essay here is a bottom-up one which I think you are also proposing.

Let me know what you think of my approach to empower individuals around the globe.

- Ajay

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 16, 2014 @ 03:42 GMT
Thanks for your commments, Ajay. I agree that for the most part we need a bottom-up approach. I'm busy for the next few days, but I'll try to take a look at your essay as soon as I can.


Member Daniel Dewey wrote on May. 15, 2014 @ 13:24 GMT
Hi Robert,

I enjoyed your essay quite a bit! I'm glad you touched on the common-good problem, as I think it's a really important consideration in this area. I was also glad to see you pointing out gain-of-function research, which I've been worried about lately.

That being said, one point doesn't seem quite right to me: "Without better evidence that we are really unusual, it seems more likely that civilizations as advanced as ours are fairly common, but that they generally do not survive long." It doesn't seem to me that the observation that we are intelligent life can be used as evidence that such life is common; this observation is no more likely in a universe with little intelligent life, since it depends on the existence of an intelligent observer in the first place. (I'm sure you've seen this before, but in case my explanation isn't clear, see the anthropic principle. Or perhaps I misunderstood your argument?

Overall, though, I quite enjoyed your essay. Thanks for writing!



Crucial Phenomena

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 15, 2014 @ 21:51 GMT
Thanks, Daniel! I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

You're right that because of the anthropic principle the observation that there is at least one advanced civilization—ours—tells us nothing about how common advanced civilizations are. My argument was that methodologically in the absence of evidence one way or another it is safer and more productive to proceed on the assumption that we're not special. But on further reflection that was probably a mistake. I think you are right that the anthropic principle undermines even the most minimal version of this mediocrity principle.

Of course, that doesn't mean advanced civilizations aren't common. I think there are theoretical reasons to worry about the possibility that they simply don't last very long. But I also think you're right to point out that we don't have direct evidence one way or another.

Thanks in any case for pointing that out to me. Your essay looks interesting too, and I'm looking forward to reading it.



Thomas Howard Ray wrote on May. 16, 2014 @ 13:13 GMT

No way your excellent essay should be languishing so far down the list. I hope my rating helped, and that it continues to get the attention it deserves.

I'll take minor exception to one statement: "If humanity were a single person with all the knowledge and abilities of the entire human race, avoiding nuclear war, and environmental catastrophe would be relatively easy."

As the rest of your essay shows, we have a large capacity for punching ourselves in the face. It isn't easy to stop. Your followup to the statement, though, I think is right on:

"But in fact we are billions of people with different experiences, different interests, and different visions for the future."

In my opinion, it is just this variety that affords us the ability to steer away from an extinction event.

All best,


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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 16, 2014 @ 18:11 GMT
Thanks, Tom! I agree with you. Our diversity poses real challenges, but in another way it may be our greatest asset. I'm just heading out for few days vacation, but I'm looking forward to reading your essay when I get back early next week.



Jacob Haqq-Misra wrote on May. 16, 2014 @ 14:38 GMT
Great essay, Robert! This is nicely written and gives an excellent and convincing overview of the need to increase our resilience as a civilization.

Research and education is absolutely part of the solution and will be one avenue of generating new ideas to safeguard our future. I also agree that we need to find new models for governance--but I am skeptical that the necessary changes in governance can arise through research alone. In fact, there are at least a few existing theoretical governance models that improve upon our own, but the willingness for people/nations to adopt these is lacking. How do you suggest that we build the necessary institutions to properly govern the commons? I think finding these necessary modes of governance is one the biggest challenges to our long-term survival, but I'm not sure how we'll get there. Of course there's only so much you can discuss in an essay, so I'd be curious to hear any further thoughts you have about this.

Best of luck in the contest!



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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 16, 2014 @ 18:17 GMT
Thanks, Jacob!

I am heading out for a few days vacation in a couple minutes, so I can't give you a full answer now—and am not entirely sure I know the answer—but in general I think we need to generate a lot of public pressure on institutions to change the regulatory and incentive structure. I don't think governments change without such pressure. Left to their own devices, they mostly serve well-funded lobbies. But that means that somehow we need to raise the public awareness of these issues a lot. Of course, one way to do that is through writing about the issues the way we're doing.



Anonymous wrote on May. 19, 2014 @ 22:37 GMT
Hi Robert,

What an excellent article, and your writing is fantastic. You really took the long view, trying to make sure we get to that future of safety and unlimited possibilities that we will find in interstellar existence. My friend, I'm sure we're going to make it to that stage someday, and articles like yours are essential to help spur us into action.

There was absolutely nothing...

view entire post

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 21, 2014 @ 01:50 GMT
Thank you so much, Aaron. It has been been a pleasure discussing these issues with you here. To briefly answer your comment, I certainly think it is possible that advanced alien civilizations are remaining hidden from us, but it seems to me that if advanced civilizations were common, then one might choose to make its presence known. I think it is also possible that civilizations that make it to the point of leaving their world of origin might live in difficult-to-detect habitats in interstellar space. But it is hard to know how likely these possibilities are. Best of luck to you as well!


Aaron M. Feeney replied on May. 21, 2014 @ 19:52 GMT
Hi Robert,

I want to respond to your statement, "it seems to me that if advanced civilizations were common, then one might choose to make its presence known." Upon reading it, I realized that I did not expound the point I was making sufficiently.

A civilization with foreknowledge machines simply would not make contact with a civilization without them, because this would invite conflict. They would be able to look ahead to see when a given civilization would attain viewer foreknowledge themselves, and when contact would be initiated with that civilization, so they would not have to wonder about when to make contact or debate the matter amongst themselves.

Think about it this way, such a civilization would not stay hidden out of fear, they would stay hidden out of compassion. If a civilization without access to viewer foreknowledge (i.e., a future-blind civilization) were to encounter any other civilization, the future-blind civilization might form an aggressive posture due to fear of the unknown. This might cause the future-blind civilization to attack, in which case the future-sighted civilization would have to defend itself, and this would obviously not go well at all for the future-blind civilization. So, it may be that graduating from the future-blind stage is a universally understood prerequisite to first contact for civilizations everywhere.

So, from this perspective, on the assumption that all civilizations advanced enough to achieve interstellar travel would also be future-sighted, it would not be the case that, "if advanced civilizations were common, then one might choose to make its presence known." Just thought I'd add these ideas to my previous comments.

Warm regards,


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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 21, 2014 @ 20:24 GMT
Interesting, Aaron. I see your point now. Thanks!

Member Marc Séguin wrote on May. 20, 2014 @ 00:53 GMT

Thank you for a very interesting essay. I fully agree with you when you say:

"Only by working together and building consensus can we harness the wisdom of the crowds. In the end, survival will require the cooperation and insight of a broad cross-section of the human race."

I believe, as you do, that "governments will only agree on a common program if we - ordinary citizens around the world - demand one."

Your ideas resonate with what I propose in my essay, that in order to raise the collective awareness and knowledge of the citizens of the world about the issues that are the most important to successfully steer the future, we must refocus education (both formal and lifelong) on precisely these issues - what I call the futurocentric curriculum.

I have looked at all the essays, and read more than half of them from start to finish. Your essay is part of the short list that I hope will make it to the finals, and I have rated it accordingly. If you have the time to take a look at my essay, rate it and comment on it, it would be quite appreciated.

Good luck in the contest!


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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 21, 2014 @ 01:52 GMT
Thank you, Marc. I really appreciate it. I think you are right about the importance of education. I am very interested to read your essay and will take a look at it as soon as I can!



Aaron M. Feeney wrote on May. 23, 2014 @ 03:17 GMT
Hi Robert,

In case you'd like to look at at least one of the references I was planning share with you about superluminal signaling experiments, you will find it in my most recent post at the bottom of Michael Allan's page. As you may know, this topic is relevant to the content of his article, so it was natural to discuss it there.



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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 23, 2014 @ 03:25 GMT
Thanks, Aaron!

Margriet Anne O\'Regan wrote on May. 23, 2014 @ 06:20 GMT
Hello Robert

Evolution is a process of adaptation & given enough time & raw materials will eventually produce a fully evolved, perfectly adapted life form, which particular life form will be evidenced by the facts that it will be able to live - indeed thrive - anywhere, at any time, under any conditions, or relocate or terra form to suit, doing so, moreover, without causing any waste, loss...

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 23, 2014 @ 06:58 GMT
Thanks for the comments, Margriet. I certainly agree that society should not be centered around or dominated by men.



Anonymous wrote on May. 24, 2014 @ 16:13 GMT

I found your essay exceptionally well aimed and argued and right on topic. A great pleasure to read, thank you. I feel a top score coming on! Your message is loud clear and true; "Adapt or Perish" and "Our existence is more tenuous than we generally realize." I also somehow feel this is the precurser essay to my own essay which continues the theme with new fundamental results showing a firm direction to go and methodological description.

However I agree you're right that; "Overcoming the technical challenges may be easy in comparison to using our collective power as a species wisely." and in far more ways than one. I'd also extend that to easy; " comparison to implementation in the face of old belief led science". For me scientific discovery implies 'change'. For many it seems the opposite is true!

I agree it's a fair view to say; "I don't think we understand the risks well enough yet to honestly say exactly what we need to do." I propose first resolving the great fundamental anomalies, then improved understanding will identify the greatest risks. Also our ability to avoid catastrophes will improve. Without that focus we may be consigned to being a momentary speck in the history of the universe.

Great job, well done. I hope you enjoy mine. The derivation uses quite simple 3D geometry and logic. QM becomes intuitive and understandable, even by young students (see the reproduced 'classroom experiment' in the end notes).

Best of luck in the competition.


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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 25, 2014 @ 00:15 GMT
Thanks so much, Peter. I'm really glad you enjoyed my essay. Your essay looks fascinating—and I'm even more excited to take a look at it now. I should have time a little later in the weekend. Best of luck to you too!


Anonymous replied on May. 29, 2014 @ 11:37 GMT

Thanks for your comment on mine. You ask about 'steering'. I suggest we're far too superficial about cause and effect, which is why we continually get unintended and even reverse outcomes. We need to look far deeper into what REALLY steer advancement.

The one thing that affects everything is our fundamental understanding of how nature works, i.e. what we are, at the smallest level. No amount of preaching or bumper stickers about what kind of people and society we 'should be' can have ANY real effect by comparison. Studying history proves the prime place of science and technology in advancement.

The key to unification is removing the illogical descriptions attached to QM by showing the real structure and classical mechanisms. Of course at higher order quantum gauges uncertainty remains, but then ceases to conflict with relativity (though both are slightly more consistently interpreted). It's a practical and immediately possible quantum leap in the right direction. It seems the real question is do we have the ability to adapt our 'beliefs' in old paradigms!

Very well done for yours, which I'm giving well earned top marks to now as I think the deadline approaches. I hope you agree mine's of similar value.

Best of luck in the judging, which is what really counts.


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Arthur R. Woods wrote on May. 24, 2014 @ 18:09 GMT

I thought your well written essay framed the issue facing humanity in very clear terms. I do believe we are on the same page and thank you for your comments on my essay. If you have not already done so, I suggest you also read the essay by Walter Putnam which adds yet another dimension to the discussion. I also, think Marc Séguin's idea of the need to become future-literate fits in...

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 25, 2014 @ 00:24 GMT
Thanks for the thoughtful comments and the great quotations, Arthur. I loved Marc's essay, but I haven't had a chance to read Walter's yet. I'll try to take a look at it later this weekend. I also thought both Daniel Dewey and Roberto Paura's entries were very smart and interesting, if you haven't had a chance to look at those yet. Best of luck to you too—I'm rooting for you to do well.


Walter Putnam wrote on May. 25, 2014 @ 02:25 GMT
Thank you, Robert, for your own thoughtful essay. You are absolutely right that there must be a political will to create institutional change in order that humans work together for the common good. We have that now in many different forms, but it seems scattered in many different directions as well. Maybe we are closer than we think to a consensus on what steps to take. Groups large and small are just like individuals in many ways: You can know what is the right thing to do, or at least what you should not do, and yet still do the opposite. But just as individuals mature and learn over the years to follow the conscience, maybe humanity is reaching the point where the collective conscience will prevail over base instinct. Best of luck in the contest.

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 25, 2014 @ 02:45 GMT
Thanks, Walter. I think maybe that's the best reason for hope—on some level we already know what to do.

Roger Schlafly wrote on May. 25, 2014 @ 05:57 GMT
I liked your essaay, but it sure seems to me to be much easier to solve those problems on Earth and avoid catastrophe, than to move people to another planet in the galaxy. I think that colonizing the galaxy has to be justified by some other reason than avoiding nuclear winter or runaway global warming.

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 25, 2014 @ 08:08 GMT
Thanks, Roger. It's a fair point. Keeping all our eggs in the single basket of Earth is always going to be somewhat risky. But spreading off the planet will be a difficult, long-term project. And the point is moot if we don't figure out soon how to solve our pressing problems here on Earth.

max david comess wrote on May. 25, 2014 @ 17:09 GMT
Dear Robert,

A well written and interesting essay on the subject of existential risk and why we should care. Although I only touched on the topic of artificial intelligence in any depth, I enjoyed the broader scope of your essay. It is true that new technologies you mention hold great promise and peril and will most likely either end up being a solution to our problems or making them much worse depending on how they are used. AI in particular is difficult as it will literally have a mind of it's own. I agree too that become a space-fairing species is the only long term solution to our survival, hopefully SpaceX and similar organizations can help accelerate that development to the point where space travel becomes profitable, economical and sustainable (rather than mostly government funded).

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 25, 2014 @ 20:12 GMT
Thanks, Max. That's a great way of putting it—"AI will literally have a mind of its own".

Ray Luechtefeld wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 19:06 GMT
Hi Robert,

Thanks for your interesting essay. I especially appreciated your acknowledgment of human existence as only a tiny portion of Earth's history.

I found that your recommendations for improved decision-making, governance, and making plans for hazard avoidance resonated with my essay on computationally intelligent personal dialogic agents. I developed a prototype of this kind of dialogic web system as part of a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation that investigated ways to develop interaction skills. I see the development of a dialogic web as a clear path toward your recommendations.

I'd appreciate a rating, if you can do that, since I am a bit short on ratings. Also, if you know of some one that would be interested in collaborating with me on the further development of the dialogic web, I'd appreciate it if you would pass along my contact info. My gmail username is my first name, then a period, then my last name.


Ray Luechtefeld, PhD

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 29, 2014 @ 19:22 GMT
Thanks, Ray. I'll be happy to take a look at your essay later today. I was pretty frustrated for a while when people weren't mine. Good luck in any case.



Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on May. 31, 2014 @ 22:19 GMT
Dear Robert de Neufville,

You begin "Life is a marvel of thermodynamics." And also "humanity must not squander the temporary miracle of its existence." And "we have to make sure that we survive" and "merely surviving... may seem an unambitious goal. We have to be free."

These are themes I base my essay on, with the same caveat that you note; Edmund Burke's observation "idealist schemes are never as well thought out as we imagine." And "decision makers almost invariably end up serving their own interests."

In another comment you said "we should steer so as to maximize our chances for survival, rather than construct some imagined utopia." Yes indeed!

As you focus on catastrophes, they maintain larger mind share for you than for me. That is the reason I'm happy to see your sober understanding of governments and utopias.

I hope you find time to read my essay and comment on.

Good luck in the contest.

Edwin Eugene Klingman

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on May. 31, 2014 @ 23:36 GMT
Thanks for your kind, thoughtful comments, Edwin. Sometimes I'm not sure it's healthy to think as much about catastrophes as I do, but I certainly believe it's better to prepare for every contingency. I haven't had a chance to read your essay yet, but I've been wanting to. I should be able to take a look at it over the weekend. Good luck to you too!



Edwin Eugene Klingman replied on Jun. 5, 2014 @ 21:10 GMT
Dear Robert,

You are correct, "Be Prepared" is a good policy. But focusing on catastrophe can bring you down. I hope you have other ways to counteract this.

Thanks for reading and commenting on my essay. While we agree on key points, you note that using statistical mechanics to model the behavior of a complex human system is problematic.

Yes, it is problematic, but that doesn't imply that there no insights to be gained. 10^10 humans is a statistically significant number, and for many purposes can be considered random.

Decades ago I realized/discovered that to accomplish my immediate goal [say to design, debug, document, produce, and market a new product] required a certain amount of time and a certain amount of effort, and there were no shortcuts. In other words, the fact that I was doing uniquely human and creative behavior did not cancel the fact that conservation of energy, momentum and general laws of physics could be bypassed. We live in a physical universe governed by physical laws, of which thermodynamics are some of the most significant. I think the approach I've taken is not entirely inappropriate although it is problematic.

Thanks again for your feedback, and your participation in this contest. Good luck.

My best regards,

Edwin Eugene Klingman

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Donald C Barker wrote on Jun. 1, 2014 @ 02:40 GMT
Hello Robert,

I liked your essay. Two things: I completely concur with one of your opening statements - "First and most of all we have to make sure that we survive," and that is the whole premise of my essay. We will not solve all the worlds/species problems as we have been working on our problems for tens of thousands of years and our headway is questionable. Though through continued work we may be able to make things better for the majority in the long run.

Second: This later statement "In a sense, the future is a collective action problem" is only relevant in how well we can collectively, and at what level, accomplish anything. Sometimes humans need to be lead by the hand or guided even if they don't know why.

Good luck,

Don Barker

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on Jun. 1, 2014 @ 03:43 GMT
Thanks, Don. I think you're absolutely right that we have to try to make headway on our long-term problems. I'm not entirely sure whether I understand your second point. My own view is that it is difficult and potentially counterproductive for anyone—even technical experts—to try to determine unilaterally what we out to do. I would like to see us design institutions that encourage everyone to work intelligently in the common interest. Good luck to you too!



Anonymous wrote on Jun. 3, 2014 @ 15:26 GMT
Dear Robert,

I appreciated the expertise and data about catastrophic events of the past, and the relatively wide spectrum of topics that you cover in the limited space of the essay.

I am curious about the estimate by physicist Richard Gott. Do you know whether this a purely abstract argument (reasoning in `geometric` terms of where a point might be on a segment, given that the segment be finite, etc.), or one more concrete and subtle, based on specific (historical) data?

You wrote:

`If we are really special it is also good news for us, because it means that the most stringent filtering steps - and therefore the greatest dangers - are already behind us.`

This triggers the discussion about the fact that we may be special/non-special. You seem to prefer the Copernican, NON-special option, but you also seem to argue about the opposite. I am definitely for the NON-special option, for the following reason.

We could only be special if we assumed that there is a threshold after which extinction becomes much more unlikely, but I do not see why this should be the case. Consider a remote village in which you find an unusual number of ultra centenary people. This does not guarantee to these very old people the chance to have more years left to live than the average person from a `normal` village. And if this example is not convincing, I would just say, more generally, that we cannot anticipate the nature and frequency of (natural or auto-induced) causes for the extinction of humanity that will occur in the future.

Best regards


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Author Robert de Neufville replied on Jun. 3, 2014 @ 18:47 GMT
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Tommaso.

Gott's estimate is derived from the assumption—I think this is the geometric argument you refer to—that we are at a point chosen at random from human history. We can on that basis be 95% confident that we are not in the first or last 2.5% of human history. On similar grounds he could argue (correctly as it turns out) that the Great Wall of China was likely to last longer than the Berlin Wall. You can read Gott's paper here.

I agree that it's methodologically safer to to proceed on the basis of the idea that we are not special (although I do think that intelligent life is special and valuable enough to be worth preserving). But I don't think the village of aging people is a good analogy, since there's no reason I know of to think that species senesce the way that individual people do. More broadly, although I agree that we can't anticipate all the threats to our survival, there's reason to think that once we spread across the galaxy we will be less vulnerable to the many disasters that could occur in one local region of space.

Yours is one of the few highly-rated essays I haven't had a chance to read yet, but I'll take a look it today or tomorrow. Good luck in any case in the contest!



Jeffrey Michael Schmitz wrote on Jun. 7, 2014 @ 04:03 GMT

Clear and well written. You touched on all the points outlined for the contest. We need to expand beyond the Earth. I see nothing wrong with your essay and I hope it wins.

I do enjoy the oddball and "a little bit out there" essays and part of me wishes you had a little whacky in this essay. That is the only negative I can see.

All the best,


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Author Robert de Neufville wrote on Jun. 7, 2014 @ 04:31 GMT
Thanks, Jeff. I think if I had time to expand upon my essay now I would like to make it whackier, or at least more speculative. I'm really glad you liked the essay in any case. One of the pleasures of this contest has been the chance to get to know and interact with people like you.



Rick Searle wrote on Jul. 6, 2014 @ 03:00 GMT
Hello Robert,

I posted an article giving some publicity to your piece:

All the best!

Rick Searle

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Author Robert de Neufville replied on Jul. 7, 2014 @ 21:26 GMT
Thanks, Rick! Looks good!

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