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An Oxford philosopher who inspired Elon Musk thinks mass surveillance might be the only way to save humanity from doom

Aria Bendix , Business Insider US
 Apr 20, 2019, 12:02 PM
Bostrom explains his "giant urn" theory to the head of TED, Chris Anderson.
Bret Hartman/TED

  • Philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued that humans could be living in a Matrix-style simulation.
  • At the TED 2019 conference in Vancouver, Canada, Bostrom posited another idea: that humanity could destroy itself with a technology of our own creation.
  • Bostrom said one of the only ways to save ourselves from this doomsday scenario would be to institute global mass surveillance.
  • The idea is especially controversial given the conference's focus on privacy in the digital era.
  • For more articles, go to Business Insider SA.


Philosopher Nick Bostrom is known for making scary predictions about humanity.

Over 15 years ago, he made the case that we are all living in a Matrix-like simulation run by another civilisation. The idea, though difficult to swallow, is well-regarded by some philosophers, and has even been sanctioned by Elon Musk.

Many years later, Bostrom isn't done outlining frightening scenarios.

On Wednesday, he took the stage at the TED 2019 conference in Vancouver, Canada, to discuss another radical theory. While speaking to head of the conference, Chris Anderson, Bostrom argued that mass surveillance could be one of the only ways to save humanity from ultimate doom.

See also: Elon Musk believes humans could end up an endangered species like the mountain gorilla

His theory starts with a metaphor of humans standing in front of a giant urn filled with balls that represent ideas. There are white balls (beneficial ideas), grey balls (moderately harmful ideas), and black balls (ideas that destroy civilisation). The creation of the atomic bomb, for instance, was akin to a grey ball - a dangerous idea that didn't result in our demise.

Bostrom posits that there many be only one black ball in the urn, but, once it is selected, it cannot be put back. (Humanity would be annihilated, after all.)

According to Bostrom, the only reason that we haven't selected a black ball yet is because we've been "lucky." Even global warming, he said, "could have been a lot worse than it is."

Bostrom thinks the ball that could destroy civilisation will be a technology of our own creation. So naturally, he said, we should prevent the technology from existing by surveilling ourselves.

Under Bostrom's vision of mass surveillance, humans would be monitored at all times via artificial intelligence, which would send information to "freedom centers" that work to save us from doom. To make this possible, he said, all humans would have to wear necklaces, or "freedom tags," with multi-directional cameras.

The idea is controversial under any circumstance, but especially at TED, which has focused this year on strategies to ensure privacy in the digital era.

Even Bostrom recognises that the scenario could go horribly wrong.

"Obviously there are huge downsides and indeed massive risks to mass surveillance and global governance," he told the crowd. But he still thinks the ends might justify the means.

"On an individual level, we seem to be kind of doomed anyway," he said.

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