Who is the real prophet of longtermism: Will MacAskill or Sam Altman?

long-term thinking is a competitive advantage because almost no one does it

Sam Altman, 2015

What we do now will affect untold numbers of future people. we need to act wisely.

William MacAskill, 2022

Neither Altman nor MacAskill is an inventor, or even a particularly original thinker. Altman is a competent engineer, but he is not a technical visionary, like Larry Page or Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google. MacAskill is a philosopher, but he is not a deep thinker, like Peter Singer or Derek Parfit. What they have in common is a knack for taking ideas that are already in the air and synthesizing them into a form that is simple, compelling, and appealing to a young audience.


In 2016, The New Yorker published a profile of Sam Altman called “Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny”.

In 2022, it published a profile of Will MacAskill called “The Reluctant Prophet of Effective Altruism”.

Below are four quotes, two from each profile. Can you correctly identify which profile does each quote belong to?

Quote 1

After a Dutch lab modified the H5N1 bird-flu virus, five years ago, making it super contagious, the chance of a lethal synthetic virus being released in the next twenty years became, well, nonzero. The other most popular scenarios would be A.I. that attacks us and nations fighting with nukes over scarce resources.

Quote 2

Development of superhuman machine intelligence (SMI) is probably the greatest threat to the continued existence of humanity. There are other threats that I think are more certain to happen (for example, an engineered virus with a long incubation period and a high mortality rate) but are unlikely to destroy every human in the universe in the way that SMI could.

Quote 3

If you believe that all human lives are equally valuable, and you also believe that 99.5 per cent of lives will take place in the future, we should spend all our time thinking about the future.

Quote 4

One of the first things he did at ___ was to paint a quotation from Admiral Hyman Rickover on its conference-room wall. “I believe it is the duty of each of us to act as if the fate of the world depended on him. . . . We must live for the future, not for our own comfort or success.


Quotes 1, 2, and 4 are from the profile of Sam Altman. Quote 2 is from his blog post on AI from 2015.

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