Originally posted on the IEET weblog

Was Bertrand Russell a Futurist?

Paper presented at the 39th annual Bertrand Russell Society’s Conference. Russell was famous for writing about the future of humanity dealing with science, society, and politics. If he was alive today, he would surely be concerned about existential and catastrophic risks, but would put a negative and positive attitude towards emerging technologies in his classic Agnostic writing. He would also be very serious about the issues that lie ahead of us with strong philosophical and scientific arguments.

Bertrand Russell can be said to have been a futurist on a number of important issues. His Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is still having long lasting effects in the world we live in today and will continue to in the future. The Russell–Einstein Manifesto detailed the need for international nuclear disarmament, proclaiming that an international nuclear war would not only kill billions of people but possibly wipe out the entire human race.  Although we surpassed the Cold War there was never a total ban on nuclear weapons which people still advocate for today, especially because this horrendous technology has grown rapidly to the point of assured mutual destruction and possible species extinction. In Russell’s speech to the House of Lords in 1945 he said, “We do not want to look at this thing simply from the point of view of the next few years. We want to look at it from the point of view of the future of mankind. The question is a simple one. Is it possible for a scientific society to continue to exist, or must such a society bring itself to destruction? It is a simple question but a very vital one. I do not think it is possible to exaggerate the gravity of the possibilities of evil that lie in the utilization of atomic energy.” Russell was thinking ahead in 1945 as he did most of his life about the future of science, society, and technological advances.

He was also very critical about corrupt government, especially that of world governance. Later in this talk I will discuss the tremendous efforts by the U.S. Government to bypass the use of nuclear weapons only to have created many more evils on the backs of their tax payers. (when I say they try to bypass the use of nuclear weapons, it is indeed still a fact that the U.S. has a very large arsenal of such weapons and most have not been completely destroyed, only dismantled).


The Pugwash conferences on science and world affairs founded by Cyrus Eaton several years after the Russell-Einstein Manifesto along with the new Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Union of Concerned Scientists are all working on influencing the G8, G20 and other nations to bring about a peaceful technological world.  These organizations tackle issues such as the middle east crisis, nuclear disarmament, environmental destruction, and the general impact of science on society. The International Atomic Energy Agency and United Nations are also looked at as organizations that have great power to influence technological peace around the world. However these organizations have yet to address the issues of future technologies in the realm of nano-tech, biotech respectfully, and artificial intelligence, which all are said to pose an existential/catastrophic risk to humanity like the nuclear bomb once did and still does. Bertrand Russell, having been the first president of the International Pugwash Conferences would surely be on top of such issues if he was alive today, given the fact that he was so concerned with current and future technologies of his time and the growing power of nuclear weapons and the abuse of authority by global leadership.

What is known as “catastrophic risks” or “existential risks” to our species is a major topic of both activists and futurists. It can be argued that out of control viruses, genetically modified foods, ozone depletion, nano-technology, unfriendly artificial intelligence and nuclear weapons are our main threats today. The IEET claims that “Global catastrophic risks are numerous and diverse. Global catastrophic risks can include: pandemics, supervolcanoes, global warming, climate chaos, other forms of environmental degradation such as loss of biodiversity,extraterrestrial threats, gamma ray bursts, large asteroids impacts, a space war, nuclear war, cyber war, cutting off power grids, genocide, an unfriendly-artificial general intelligence, aging, global totalitarianism, global economic collapse, the massive structural unemployment that may result with increasing automation, and the misuse of emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, molecular manufacturing, biotechnology, and synthetic biology, as well as many other categories of risks and unknown risks.”

These technologies and governance are mostly in control of humans and human experimentation and like the Russell–Einstein Manifesto suggested, only the power-elite and governments can regulate such dangers. Although we do see emphasis on DIY biology by futurists we have yet to witness great discoveries in the local garage.  Futurist think-tanks and organizations such as H+, KurzweilAI, The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the Singularity Institute, and the Future of Humanity Institute are undertaking the need for thoughtful insight into catastrophic risks posed by such technologies and governance. Russell’s words, attributed to futurist modern think-tanks then become as important as ever. A lot of work has been done by modern activists and futurist think-tanks that can be compared to Russell’s moral values to that of modern day catastrophic risks, both in the fields of technological research and development and dangerous modern day political controversy. Russell said in The Impact of Science on Society that “Science used to be valued as a means of getting to know the world; now, owing to the triumph of technique, it is conceived as showing how to change the world.” (78) This change Russell talks about is at center stage of the think-tanks mentioned before because what is in control of intelligent minds is of the greatest concern for the future of the world and mind itself.


In fact Russell wrote many articles referring to the existential risks that political controversy poses. There is no doubt that Russell believed that scientific change goes hand in hand with political power. In The Need for Political Skepticism and Fact and Fiction Russell highlighted as does futurist John Smart of the Acceleration Watch think-tank, that so called politicians make ignorant assumptions about how things should be handled. Both Russell and Smart would agree that both experts and true democratic elections should influence directly the actions of politicians. Russell continuously wrote articles and talked with the BBC on such matters. In 1959 he was asked what kind of message would he want to pass onto the future of humankind. He responded “Love is wise. Hatred is foolish.  In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. If we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.” Today we live in a world that is as interconnected as it could be. For example take the unsettling fact that when you throw away your computer monitor in the U.S. It is sent to Asia to be taken apart by kids for precious metals. Or on a positive note look at the Internet and the recent uprisings in the middle east, especially in Egypt where the interconnected international community played a large role to take down Mubarak’s regime.

Many futurist think-tanks have a moral value system or a statement about their ethics. My favorite ethical statement comes from the IEET. The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies has a moral and political stance that puts emphasis on the ethical use of technology and science in a non-capitalistic and anti-American-libertarian position behind the general ideas presented on their website called Technoprogressivism. The position that the IEET takes I think is in line with Russell’s ideas about scientific power and governance.

“Technoprogressivism maintains that accounts of “progress” should focus on scientific and technical dimensions, as well as ethical and social ones. For most technoprogressive perspectives, then, the growth of scientific knowledge or the accumulation of technological powers will not represent the achievement of proper progress unless and until it is accompanied by a just distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of these new knowledges and capacities. At the same time, for most technoprogressive critics and advocates, the achievement of better democracy, greater fairness, less violence, and a wider rights culture are all desirable, but inadequate in themselves to confront the quandaries of contemporary technological societies unless and until they are accompanied by progress in science and technology to support and implement these values.”

The IEET takes the stance that democracy means progress and like Russell it goes hand in hand with scientific discoveries. The U.S. Government however proves to be one of the least democratic republics when it comes to scientific research and development. The citizens of the U.S. Do not even know where a majority of their tax dollars are going to in the realm of technological research, for the government out of so called national security keeps most technological war advancements secret, sometimes to the point of 20 to 30 years. What we do know about the government and technological research ranges from robots, artificial intelligence, better weapons such as drones and Department of Defense technological research such as the Future Force Warrior,  Future Combat Systems, and the Brigade combat team Modernization. These unclassified projects are only creating better weapons and soldiers for future wars utilizing science and technological progress instead of helping humanity. While these projects try to bypass the use of catastrophic nuclear weapons, they only increase the potential for the use of what Russell would refer to as intolerance to other nations.

Computer power grows by Moores law, exponentially every few years. This exponential growth according to Kurzwiel and other computer scientists will result in computers with more processing power then the human brain. Not only did Russell’s Principia Mathematica lead the way for more logical computers, but Russell himself was a leading advocate of the troubled Alen Turing and enjoyed the theory of the Turing Test very much. Today, according to futurist think-tanks, even though the Turing Test makes a lot of sense when it comes to computational power, it may not be enough, for we must understand consciousness and mind before we make assumptions about the results of the Turing Test. Both Turing and Russell would probably agree if they where exposed to modern artificial intelligence and cognitive science research. The onset of what is known as the transhumanist or posthuman will rely on computers to make such a drastic leap in evolution of the human being, human V. 20 if you will.

This is where the futurist think-tanks become very important. It is said that un-friendly super intelligent AI might look at us (humans) as we do bugs. But will they really squash us like we do bugs leading to a cyber war straight out of terminator? This catastrophic risk has been written about much more then the possibility that AI will be friendly. In my opinion super intelligence will not only know how to do math and science better, but also morals and ethics. I think Einstein and Russell would think the same. As Russell put it,


“A man [consciousness, mind, brain, AI] is rational in proportion as his intelligence informs and controls his desires. I believe that the control of our acts by our intelligence is ultimately what is of most importance, and what alone will make social life remain possible as science increases the means at our disposal for injuring each other. Education, the press, politics, religion – in a word, all the great forces in the world – are at present on the side of irrationality; they are in the hands of men who flatter King Demons in order to lead him astray. The remedy does not lie in anything heroically cataclysmic, but in the efforts of individuals towards a more sane and balanced view of our relations to our neighbors and to the world. It is to intelligence, increasingly wide-spread, that we must look for the solution of the ills from which our world is suffering.”

There is no need, in my opinion, to think negatively about rationality in machines, and I think that we don’t even have to program machines to be rational, that with self learning comes ethical and moral action. Any self learning machine which is conscious of its own learning will be able to connect to the Internet and download vast amounts of information to come to a correct deductive conclusion. The futurists who believe that we must program AI to be friendly are suggesting that unfriendly AI pose a catastrophic risk to humanity. But if what Russell says about humans is also true of a conscious computer with the capabilities of self learning they then become a non-threat.

However many people do not realize the other amazing consequences these technologies pose for human kind. Robots and computers will be able to do tasks like building cars to actual scientific research thousands of times better then humans. We will either be integrated via brain-to-computer interfaces, or we will live along side these amazing machines in which we create. As Jürgen Schmidhuber, Director of the Swiss Artificial Intelligence Lab, puts it we should think of ourselves as “Don’t think of us, the humans, versus them, those future über-robots. Instead view yourself, and humankind in general, as a stepping stone (not the last one) on the path of the universe towards more and more unfathomable complexity. Be content with that little role in the grand scheme of things.” Bertrand Russell was also concerned with the unsettling responses to new technologies such as the steam engine. He called for people to take a rational look at technological advances instead of resisting them because as, he put it, poets and some artists of the 18th and 19th centuries simply thought that technology was ugly.

However today we are dealing with a much greater technology then the steam engine, quite like the power of the nuclear bomb. If future robots and AIs have the potential to be unfriendly – at catastrophic levels to humans existence, then the majority of the futurist think-tanks are on the right track in dealing with unfriendly AI as the new atomic bomb.

Getting back to political scientific discoveries and political futurism, in Russell’s book The Impact of Science on Society his conclusion stated that

“a scientific society can be stable given certain conditions. The first of these is a single government of the whole world, possessing a monopoly of armed force and therefore able to enforce peace. The second condition is a general diffusion of prosperity, so that there is no occasion for envy of one part of the world by another. The third condition (which supposes the second fulfilled) is a low birth rate everywhere, so that the population of the world becomes stationary, or nearly so. The fourth condition is the provision for individual initiative both in work and in play, and the greatest diffusion of power compatible with maintaining the necessary political and economic framework. The world is a long way from realizing these conditions, and therefore we must expect vast upheavals and appalling suffering before stability is attained. But, while upheavals and suffering have hitherto been the lot of man, we can now see, however dimly and uncertainly, a possible future culmination in which poverty and war will have been overcome, and fear, where it survives, will have become pathological. The road, I fear, is long, but that is no reason for losing sight of the ultimate hope.”


With the United states accounting for 40% of overall global military spending, and using the American tax dollar at a rate of 60% of Discretionary Spending for the DOD, War, VA, and Nuclear Weapons, it is clearly the world’s superpower. What happened to Bertrand Russell’s dream of a global accountable federation? It has morphed into the Washington Consensus who consists of the U.N., G8, G20, World Trade Organization, and the International Monterey Fund. Perhaps future posthumans and AIs will use their intelligence like Russell did to be more compassionate towards life and mind.


Brink, Andrew. The Psychobiography of a Moralist. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, INC., 1989. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. Fact and Fiction. Trowbridge: Routledge, 1961,1994. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. The Impact of Science on Society. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1953. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. Power. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1938. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. Proposed Roads to Freedom. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1919. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. Skeptical Essays. New York: Routledge, 1928/1996. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. Unpopular Essays. ForeVillage: Simon and Schuster, 1950. Print.

Schmidhuber, Jürgen.  January 20, 2012. Tedx Talk.

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  http://ieet.org/

H+ Magazine. http://hplusmagazine.com/

The Russell-Einstein Manifesto. London, 9 July 1955. http://www.pugwash.org/about/manifesto.htm




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