Leopold Aschenbrenner on existential risk, German Culture, Valedictorian efficiency


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I had an excellent chat with Leopold Aschenbrenner. Leopold is a grant winner from Tyler Cowen’s Emergent Ventures. He went to Columbia University, aged 15, and graduated in 2021 as valedictorian. (Contents below ↓ ↓ ). He is a researcher at the Global Priorities Institute, thinking about long-termism. He has drafted a provocative paper encompassing ideas of long-termisim, existential risk and growth.

For some of our conversation we were joined by phantom Tyler Cowen imagining what he might think. We discussed Leopold’s critique of German culture and whether he’d swap German infrastructure for the American entrepreneurial spirit.

Whether being a valedictorian is efficient, if going to University at 15 is underrated and life at Columbia University.

What you can learn from speed solving Rubik’s cubes and if Leopold had to make the choice today if he’d still be vegetarian.

Thinking about existential risk, Leopold considers whether nuclear or biological warfare risk is a bigger threat than climate change and how growth matters and if the rate of growth matters as much depending on how long you think humanity survives.

Considering possible under rated existential risk Leopold sketches out several concerns over the falling global birth rate, how sticky that might be and whether policy would be effective. We consider what is worth seeing in Germany, how good or not GDP is as a measure and what we should do with our lives.

Leopold has wide ranging thoughts and in thinking and working on fat tail existential ruin risks is working on saving the human world. Fascinating thoughts.

Transcript Here with links and a video version here. Ben Yeoh's microgrants here.

1:35 How to think about a future career (80000 hours)

4:10 Is going to university at 15 years old underrated?

6:22 In favour of college and liberal arts vs Thiel fellowships

9:14 Is being a valedictorian efficient (H/T Tyler Cowen)

13:01 Leopold on externalities and how to sort smart people

15:08 Learnings from Columbia. The importance of work ethic.

19:50 Leopold learning from Adam Tooze and German history

22:16 Leopold critiques German culture on standing out.

23:08 Observations on decline of German universities

25:22 Leopold concerns on the German leadership class 30:25 German infrastructure and if it feels poor

34:13 Critique of too much netflix

35:27 What to learn from speed cubing Rubik’s cubes and weird communities

38:04 Leopold’s story of Emergent Ventures and what he found valuable

40:08 Embracing weirdness and disagreeableness

42:20 Leopold considering whether US entrepreneurial culture worth swapping for German infrastructure

44:44 Leopold on social ills of alcohol

44:59 Examining Leopold’s ideas of existential risk and growth

48:49 Different views depending on time frame:700 years or millions of years

52:18 Leopold’s view on importance of growth and risk of dark ages

57:07 Climate as a real risk but not a top existential risk 1:01:02 Nuclear weapons as an underrated existential risk

1:01:45 View on emergent AI risk 1:03:20 Falling fertility as an underrated risk

1:15:35 Mormon and eternal family

1:17:29 Underrated/overrated with phantom Tyler Cowen

1:36:10 What EA gets right/wrong, EA as religion? 1:44:56 Advice: Being independent, creative and writing blogs

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