The End of the Future of Humanity Institute (updated)


The Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at the University of Oxford closed earlier this week.

The FHI was an interdisciplinary research group founded in 2005 by philosopher Nick Bostrom, who served as its director for its entire existence. He will now be leaving Oxford.

The closure of the FHI appears to be the result of decisions by Oxford’s Faculty of Philosophy. A statement on the FHI website says:

Over time FHI faced increasing administrative headwinds within the Faculty of Philosophy (the Institute’s organizational home). 

A “final report” on the FHI by Anders Sandberg provides a little more detail:

While FHI had achieved significant academic and policy impact, the final years were affected by a gradual suffocation by Faculty bureaucracy. The flexible, fast-moving approach of the institute did not function well with the rigid rules and slow decision-making of the surrounding organization. (One of our administrators developed a joke measurement unit, “the Oxford”. 1 Oxford is the amount of work it takes to read and write 308 emails. This is the actual administrative effort it took for FHI to have a small grant disbursed into its account within the Philosophy Faculty so that we could start using it—after both the funder and the University had already approved the grant.)

Starting in 2020, the Faculty imposed a freeze on fundraising and hiring. Unfortunately, this led to the eventual loss of lead researchers and especially the promising and diverse cohort of junior researchers, who have gone on to great things in the years since. While building an impressive alumni network and ecosystem of new nonprofits, these departures severely reduced the Institute. In late 2023, the Faculty of Philosophy announced that the contracts of the remaining FHI staff would not be renewed. On 16 April 2024, the Institute was closed down.

The reasons the Faculty of Philosophy told the FHI to stop hiring and fundraising have not been made public. It’s not clear whether it is related to personnel or administrative issues, shifts in funding priorities, dissatisfaction with the research focus of the FHI, or something else altogether. (Please avoid speculation about this in the comments.)

The website statement summarizes that research focus:

FHI was involved in the germination of a wide range of ideas including existential risk, effective altruism, longtermism, AI alignment, AI governance, global catastrophic risk, grand futures, information hazards, the unilateralist’s curse, and moral uncertainty. It also did significant work on anthropics, human enhancement ethics, systemic risk modeling, forecasting and prediction markets, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and on the attributes and strategic implications of key future technologies. One major contribution was in showing that it was even possible to do rigorous research on big picture questions about humanity’s future.

The report goes into greater detail on this research and its impact, as well as the various academic and public-facing activities of scholars at the FHI. You can read it here.

UPDATE (4/18/24): An inquiry to parties at the University of Oxford outside the FHI yielded the following statement:

Oxford University has taken the difficult decision to close the Future of Humanity Institute, a research centre in the Faculty of Philosophy. The Institute has made an important contribution to the study of the future of humanity, for which we would like to thank and recognise the research team. Researchers elsewhere across Oxford University are likely to continue to work on this emerging field.

While this confirms some facts, it doesn’t do much to explain the reasons for the closure. Some insight into those reasons, perhaps, can be gleaned from a section towards the end of FHI’s report:

Any organization embedded in a larger organization or community needs to invest to a certain degree in establishing the right kind of social relationships to maintain this embeddedness. Incentives must be aligned, and both parties must also recognize this alignment. We did not invest enough in university politics and sociality to form a long-term stable relationship with our faculty. There also needs to be an understanding of how to communicate across organizational communities. When epistemic and communicative practices diverge too much, misunderstandings proliferate. Several times we made serious missteps in our communications with other parts of the university because we misunderstood how the message would be received. Finding friendly local translators and bridgebuilders is important.

Another important lesson (which is well known in business and management everywhere outside academia) is that as an organization scales up it needs to organize itself differently. The early informal structure cannot be maintained beyond a certain size, and must be gradually replaced with an internal structure. Doing this gracefully, without causing administrative sclerosis or lack of delegation, is tricky and in my opinion we somewhat failed. 

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Miroslav Imbrisevic
1 month ago

The punk rockers were right: “No future!”

A Philosopher Named Slickback
A Philosopher Named Slickback
1 month ago

Bye

toro toro
toro toro
1 month ago

At this difficult time for everyone involved, I would like to make it widely known that I will say anything, anything at all, that makes techbros happy in exchange for cash.

I don’t even need a castle. Two-term buyout and funding for a postdoc, and I’m anyone’s.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  toro toro
1 month ago

As a general rule people on DN have responded to stories of philosophy centers and departments being shut down with sympathy, rather than schadenfreude. I’m sorry to see that’s not the case here.

(This without prejudice as to whether this was a necessary move on Oxford’s part – I suspect the story there is complicated.)

BCB
BCB
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Counterpoint: the FHI was a means by which external funders could give a cluster of philosophical views a level of prominence and institutional power that was very disproportionate to their merits, and to the prominence and institutional power they would have on a more even intellectual playing field. While it’s sad that good people are losing their jobs, this may not be sad news with respect to the health of the discipline.

(fwiw, this is the first DN post of yours I have not wholeheartedly agreed with!)

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  BCB
1 month ago

One can have sympathy even if one thinks the decision was ultimately correct.

I’m also not convinced that’s a fair statement about FHI, at least initially: it leveraged a shoestring budget into a pretty impressive level of influence. (I can’t speak to how it evolved in the time since I left Oxford, and even while I was there I had become much less aware of it later.)

David Wallace
Reply to  BCB
1 month ago

On reflection I should expand on my comment here. FHI was founded in 2005 as a humanities component in the largely-STEM focused Oxford Martin School. Its initial remit, as I recall, was quite amorphous and broad, and shaped by the people it hired. (I was on a couple of its early hiring panels in the mid-2000s.) It predates the current Silicon Valley interest in effective altruism, longtermism, and AI risk, and indeed played a large role in creating that interest, and those fields themselves. The large-scale funding from tech focused on those areas came later (and indeed one can ask whether in the long term it was in FHI’s interest to be quite so showered in gold). It’s much more an advert for the ability of academics to shape elite interest than it is a demonstration of how elite interest shapes the academy (or, again: that was at least true in its earlier period).

Richard Y Chappell
Reply to  BCB
1 month ago

fwiw, I think a lot of extraordinarily interesting, creative, and innovative philosophy came out of FHI. (More than that: I would have thought that this was undeniable.) I guess people vary radically in their philosophical tastes, but “it’s a good thing for the discipline when people I disagree with lose their jobs” is not an attitude I would generally expect from philosophers.

I’m also dubious of the idea that external funding necessarily disrupts what would otherwise be an “even intellectual playing field”. Purely “internal” influences are different (including fads, social networks, ideologies that happen to be popular amongst the academic elite, etc.), but are not obviously more truth-conducive (or merit-conducive). We can all make judgments about academics whose prominence is disproportionate to their merits (at least as we judge them). We all know that academia is far from a perfect meritocracy. So it’s at least possible (and, I think, often plausible) that external funding can remedy problems of undue neglect within the academy. (This is presumably more likely when the external funders are well-motivated. But many are. For example, I gather that a major funder for FHI was OpenPhilanthropy: a spinoff from GiveWell. I’d be hard pressed to think of a more obviously well-motivated organization. It’d be a bit like having Doctors Without Borders funding medical research: we could fully expect their priorities to be much better than those that otherwise reign supreme amongst first-world medical researchers!)

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
1 month ago

A weaker version of this would itself suffice to make your point: even if it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea to have Doctors Without Borders controlling all medical research, at the margin their controlling a chunk of it might well be an improvement.

BCB
BCB
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
1 month ago

I think the appeal of this analogy depends on one’s substantive judgments about the views in question: someone who thinks consequentialism is profoundly wrongheaded might instead see the case as more similar to the Koch brothers funding reseach in political philosophy.

Toro toro
Toro toro
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

You know what? You’re right.

I thought it was a funny joke about what a lot of people see as the malign and disproportionate influence of the Institute’s funding arrangements. Evidently some people agree.

But you certainly couldn’t tell from it that I have genuine sympathy for the people who now have to brave a horrid job market. So I shouldn’t have posted it.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Toro toro
1 month ago

Kudos.
(It actually was a funny joke, fwiw.)

Junior faculty
Junior faculty
Reply to  toro toro
1 month ago

This is my favorite DN comment of all time.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Junior faculty
1 month ago

I suppose it was always optimistic to hope that people would regret the misfortune of others even when they disagreed with their philosophical views.

Sam
Sam
1 month ago

Bostrom, Sandberg and the others have done some incredible and incredibly important work. This is a really sad loss for philosophy and for Oxford but I hope they are proud of what they accomplished already.

Bmk
Bmk
1 month ago

Will GPI remain?

David Wallace
Reply to  Bmk
1 month ago

I don’t have inside information on this issue but I don’t see any reason to expect GPI to go away: I think Oxford’s decision to close FHI probably depends on quite specific features of the Institute and its relation to the Philosophy Faculty, not on any broad move away from supporting this style of research.

GPI-based philosopher
GPI-based philosopher
Reply to  Bmk
1 month ago

As someone working at GPI: yes. The decision doesn’t affect us at all. Apart from being based in the same building, there isn’t much connection between the two institutes nowadays.

Sleepy Grad student
Sleepy Grad student
27 days ago

The fact of this negative opinion piece from the Guardian is interesting…

“‘Eugenics on steroids’: the toxic and contested legacy of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute”

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2024/apr/28/nick-bostrom-controversial-future-of-humanity-institute-closure-longtermism-affective-altruism