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(Note: Consider any work of fiction I mention to be a spoiler risk. I've made sure each title is in bold italics so you can quickly scan and, if you don't want to risk spoiling yourself, quickly move on)

This summer a film came out which captured the hearts and minds of EAs. Focused on a fantastic performance from the lead in the title role, it was based around one of the most lasting creations of the 20th century which continues to have profound consequences to this day, but was told with skill by a talented director and is regarded by many as one of the best films released this year.

But enough about Barbie... Christopher Nolan's nuclear epic Oppenheimer was released on the very same day and a major plot thread was the threat that, in testing their new creation, the team at Los Alamos could inadventantly bring about the end of the world (and also any future for humanity). It also questioned whether the bomb should have ever been created at all, how the US ought to have dealt with growing nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union, and many other important themes.

I saw it with non-EA friends and really enjoyed the discussion about it afterwards, where people touched on themes and ideas that are often found in EA Forum posts and classic EA-recommended sources. It got me thinking about other places where I've seen EA-adjacaent or EA-explicit films in fiction before, so here I present my (somewhat off the top) list to consider:[1]

My (non-exhaustive) List

Outer Wilds (2019)- To be honest I think this is the best videogame ever made, so if you have any interest at all in those you should stop reading this now and start playing this game.[2] I'm going to say nothing else about it, except that it's fairly easy to read some parts of the plot in a longtermist way

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) - This Christmas Classic may be the most obviously EA non-EA piece of fiction ever:

  • A man gets to see the counterfactual impact of his life and judge whether it did good or not. 80,000 Hours need to call Clarence Odbody stat!
  • Indeed, it actually centers on the question not just of his actions but his existence or non-existence too
  • Our protagonist is relentlessly altruistic, and our antagonist is relentlessly greedy (and he definitely doesn't earn-to-give)
  • A potential bio-risk is averted even at personal cost to the person intervening
  • A child is saved from drowning in a pond

This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.

Strong Female Protagonist (2012-2018) - Great webcomic (one of the best things I've read this year I think). Unfortunately it got put on hiatus on the final issue and never came back, but issue 3 deals will some pretty explicitly EA dilemmas. In fact, so much of it reads like grappling with EA ideas in a superhero story.

Okja (2017) - Director Bong doesn't make bad films. This one isn't an allegory, it's just about an attempt to save an animal from the cruelty it would face at the hands of the factory-farming complex. It's also got criticism of working within the capitalist system for your EA-sceptical friends too! Would make a powerful but tough double-bill with Animal Liberation Now.

Person of Interest (2011-2016) - How do you create a TV show about rival superintelligent AIs vying for the future of humanity? Simple, don't tell the network, pitch it as a buddy-cop drama with a twist, and slowly reveal the "real" plot once your show has momentum. Also a candidate for the most underrated TV show of all time.

Chernobyl (2019) - "What is the cost of lies?". I had to find something which really fits the "Improving Institutional Decision-Making" cause area that I feel drawn towards. After the initial disaster our characters (as well as many extras) show great bravery and moral character, but are constantly constrained and fighting against an inherentely broken set of institutions that limit the effectiveness of their actions. 

Schindler's List (1993) - There's a particular scene, near the end of the film, which is very relevant to Singer's thought experiment about what you would give up to save a life, and the question of where your limits of responsibility are in a world which contains injustice, suffering, and evil. Amongst an incredibly powerful and moving film, this scene has stood out to me.

What do you think?

Are we underestimating the impact that fiction can have in introducing EA concepts to a wider audience? Is there a way to help promote this, or is it impossible to 'pick winners' in what is essentially a creative process? 

I'd also really like to hear your own examples of engaging with a piece of fiction and having your EA-proximity alarm go off, feel free to add examples in the comments (though, of course, be mindful of spoilers if so)

  1. ^

    If you haven't seen/read/played one of the above, and you're on this Forum, then I'd strongly recommend all of them! 

  2. ^

    And after you finish the base game, download and play the DLC





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Seconding Strong Female Protagonist, and noting that it is also available as a printed graphic novel for those who prefer to read offline

  • Frankenstein (Mary Shelley): moral circle expansion to a human created AI, kinda.
  • Elizabeth Costello (J M Coetzee): novel about a professor who gives animal rights lectures. The chapter that's most profoundly about animal ethics was published as "The Lives of Animals" which was printed with commentary from Peter Singer (in narrative form!).
  • Darkness at Noon (Arthur Koestler): Novel with reflections from an imprisoned old Bolshevik, reflecting on his past revolutionary activity. Interesting reflections on ends vs. means reasoning, and on weighing considerations of moral scale / the numbers affected vs personal emotional connection in moral tradeoff scenarios.

One trillion dollars by Andreas Eschbach

Random guy ends up with a one trillion dollar fortune, and tries to use it to make the workd a better place.

Themes include:

-consideration of longterm vs. short term effects

-corruption through money and power


-galaxybraining yourself into letting go of deontological norms

-a carecature of an EA as an antagonist

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