Yesterday, Juan Manuel Santos, former president of Colombia (2010-2018) and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize winner gave the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.

The address contained the usual graduation speech stuff about all the problems humanity is facing and how this special class of students is uniquely equipped to change the world or whatever.

While the gist of the message was pretty standard, I was pleasantly surprised that Santos spent a significant chunk of time talking about existential risk as the most pressing problem of our time (see clip here). Santos touched on the major x-risk factors well known to the EA community: AI, biosecurity, and nuclear weapons. However, he also emphasized climate change as one of the most pressing existential threats, which of course is a view that many EAs do not share.

On one hand, I think this speech should be seen as a sign of hope. Ideas on the importance of mitigating x-risk — and the particular threats of AI, pandemics, and nuclear war — seem to be entering more mainstream circles. This trend is evidenced further in a recent post noting another former world leader (Israeli PM Naftali Bennett) who publicly discussed AI x-risk. And I think a college commencement speech is arguably more mainstream than the Asian Leadership Conference at which Bennett delivered his talk.

On the other hand, it was clear that there is still a long way to go in terms of convincing most of the general population that x-risk should be taken seriously. Sitting in the audience, the people around me were smirking and giggling throughout the x-risk portion of Santos' speech. Afterward, I overheard people joking about the AI part and how they thought it was inappropriate to talk about such morbid material in a commencement address.

Overall, I certainly appreciated Santos for talking about x-risk, but I'm not convinced that his words had much of an impact on the people in the audience. To be sure, I realize that commencement speeches are largely ceremonial and all but a handful don't have any broader societal impact. Still, it would have been nice to see people be more receptive to Santos' important ideas.

I would be interested to hear if anyone has any thoughts on Santos' discussion of x-risk. Was it appropriate to talk about this stuff in the context of a commencement address? Is this an effective forum to spread ideas about x-risk (or other "weird" EA ideas), or will these ideas just fall on deaf ears? Or are commencement addresses mostly irrelevant and not worth even thinking about for the purposes of growing EA and promoting some of the more idiosyncratic concepts?

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Sure, the audience reaction wasn't great, but it's a start. New ideas can take time to sink in, especially the big, scary ones. Maybe a few of those grads will think it over later and get curious.

I appreciate the optimism, and I sure hope you're right. It took me a while to understand and accept the importance of x-risk mitigation, especially for AI, so I should really be more empathetic. And as others have noted, Santos' presentation wasn't great in terms of his accuracy and phrasing, so I would love to see people use this speech as a starting point to seek out more accurate assessments of the risks he discussed.

SWK - thanks for sharing this. Good to see Santos talking about this. I think his message was somewhat undermined by three factors, which you alluded to: (1) commencement speeches are usually optimistic, uplifting platitude-dumps written to be as inoffensive as possible, (2) the Doomsday Clock just doesn't have much credibility or gravitas any more, since its meaning has been diluted from the original 'global nuclear war' focus to all sorts of other concerns, (3) mentioning climate change as if it's an 'existential risk' either doesn't understand what 'existential risk' means, or vastly over-estimates the likely severity of climate change.

Thanks for your comment, and I agree with your points. I definitely should have noted Santos' unfortunate use of the Doomsday Clock to frame his speech. This was, in hindsight, a sure way undermine his message both for people familiar or unacquainted with x-risk ideas.

I think this is straightforwardly a good sign (especially how much he focused on AI). I also think the negatives you pointed to aren't as bad as you're interpreting them.

Sitting in the audience, the people around me were smirking and giggling throughout the x-risk portion of Santos' speech. 

To be fair, his phrasing was kinda goofy and hyperbolic in places (eg emphasis on the doomsday clock, referring to AI risk as "the tech giants... are creating a monster that might very well devour us"), so it's understandable that people would giggle.

Afterward, I overheard people joking about the AI part and how they thought it was inappropriate to talk about such morbid material in a commencement address.

But "morbid" doesn't mean "absurd". If anything, it implies the topic is too serious for the venue. 

Very fair points. I guess since I agreed with the general gist of Santos' message (and was generally just surprised that he was talking about this stuff in the first place) I looked past the presentation at the time. Looking back, Santos definitely used some language that makes his arguments more difficult to take seriously.