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Institute accused of ‘eugenics on steroids’ shut down by Oxford University

The Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at Oxford University was shut down on April 16 after 19 years of research and operation. Research carried out by FHI included developing controversial ethical theories such as effective altruism and ‘longtermism’. 

Professor Nick Bostrom, founder of FHI, traced its closure to “administrative headwinds” from the University and, in particular the Faculty of Philosophy, outlining a “pressure to conform”. A former Senior Research Fellow at the Institute, Anders Sanberg, similarly maintained that FHI was “affected by a gradual suffocation by Faculty bureaucracy.”  

The work carried out by the Institute is notably intertwined with the philosophy of ‘longtermism’, which “refers to a set of ethical views concerned with protecting and improving the long-run future.”. Notable benefactors of the FHI include Elon Musk, who donated £1 million in 2015 to fund research about artificial intelligence, and who considers longtermism a “close match” to his own philosophy.     

The Future of Humanity’s website has published a statement saying that its fundraising and hiring were frozen in 2020 and at the end of last year, the Faculty of Philosophy decided not to renew staff contracts. Its final report also stated : “We did not invest enough in university politics and sociality to form a long-term stable relationship with our faculty.” 

Throughout the Institute’s lifetime there have been several instances of controversy relating to the organisation’s framework. 15 months ago, Bostrom was involved in a scandal that revealed racist comments he had made in an email from 1996. Despite an issued apology, the Institute received backlash.

Émile Torres, a philosopher who specialises in existential threats, denounced the work of the FHI, equating it to a “noxious ideology” and “eugenics on steroids.” They also underscored the many scandals associated with effective altruism and ‘longtermism’. A few months before the Bostrom controversy, Sam Bankman-Fried was equally detained for a multibillion-dollar fraud. Bankman-Fried was a prominent supporter of effective altruism as well as a friend of William MacAskill, who was closely linked to FHI.   

Irrespective of its closure, the Institute says “made a series of research contributions that helped change our conversation about the future” and promises that “FHI alumni will continue to research [these] questions both within Oxford and at other places around the world.” 

A spokesperson from the University of Oxford told Cherwell: “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.”

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