Russian x-risks newsletter, fall 2019
Russia could be seen as an x-risks wonderland, with exploding nuclear facilities and bioweapons storage sites, doomsday weapons, frequent asteroid impacts, Siberian volcanic traps, Arctic methane bomb, military AI programs, and crazy scientists wanting to drill to the Earth’s core. But there are also people who do their best trying to prevent global risks, and one of the most well-known is Petrov, who is remembered on 9⁄26. Russia can also provide much of the world with lessons in resilience; for example, many of its people, living in villages, can still supply themselves with food, water and energy without access to external sources.
Explosion in the virology center in Novosibirsk, 16 September 2019. The explosion was caused by a natural gas tank used in the renovation process. The fire was allegedly close to the storage facilities but didn’t directly affect them, so there was no leak of hazardous biological materials.
Why it is important? This seems to be a new type of possible catastrophic event, that has not been previously predicted, one that could produce a “multipandemic”—the simultaneous release of many deadly biological agents. A possible protective measure against new events of this type is the preservation of deadly agents in different places.
What is it? This center is one of two places in the world where live samples of smallpox are preserved. The State Scientific Center for Virology and Biotechnology (SSC WB), also known as “the Vector Center”, has one of the most comprehensive collections of viruses in the world, including Ebola, Marburg hemorrhagic fever, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), smallpox, and others. Created in 1974 near Novosibirsk, it was previously a closed institute that led the development of vaccines, as well as strategies for protection against bacteriological and biological weapons. In 1999, Valentin Yevstigneev, the head of the biological defense department of the Russian Ministry of Defense, said that they began to consider the Vector Center as “an industrial base for the production of offensive biological preparations” in the late 1980s. It was assumed that the strains of smallpox, tularemia, plague, anthrax and Ebola developed by the center would be placed in warheads. This work was curtailed in 1992, shortly after USSR ceased to exist.
In October of 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law a new national AI strategy, the text of which includes a passage about the need for fundamental research to develop strong (universal) AI. This line was supported during the main Russian AI event, the conference AI Journey in November 2019, where Schmidhuber and Ben Goertzel spoke about AGI. Putin later joined the conference, who reiterated that those who control AI will control the world, and also mentioned his belief in the need to create strong AI. The main mind behind the conference was German Gref, who is a big AI fan and the director of the Russian bank Sberbank. During the conference, six major Russian tech companies signed an agreement to form something like a Russian variant of the Partnership for AI. There were some ritual words about “AI ethics” during the conference, but nothing was said about the AI alignment problem. More technical sessions about AGI also took place; there were five presenters on topics including the DeepPavlov project from MIPT, and AIXI modification from Occam. Computer scientists Alexey Potapov (not to be mistaken for Russian cryonist Alexey Potapov) and Alexander I. Panov (not to be mistaken for Russian SETI scientist and astronomer Alexander D. Panov) presented at the meeting.
The new Russian AI strategy requested funding of around 6.5 billion USD until 2024, which is not a terribly large budget if compared with the AI strategies of other countries.
Runaway global warming
Scientists from Tomsk detected the eruption of a “methane bomb” in the East Siberian sea, which resulted in methane atmospheric concentration 6–7 times above normal, representing the biggest methane leak for 45 years of observation. Similarly, thousands of lakes have erupted methane in Siberia and Alaska. Meanwhile, Russia has signed the Paris climate agreement as of 23 September. However, Greta Thunberg-inspired climate protests had turnouts of less than 200 people and experienced police crackdowns.
Why it is important? Russia’s Arctic shelf and tundra has a large amount of accumulated methane sequestered in the form of ice-methane clathrate underwater and in organic material under permafrost. Because of the polar amplification of global warming, most of the warming is happening in polar regions. Methane itself is a much more potent greenhouse than CO2, but behaves differently: it has a half-life of only seven years, but it has “high global warming potential of 72 (averaged over 20 years) or 25 (averaged over 100 years)” times that of CO2 (phyz.org). This means that if we account for a one-time strong eruption, its effects are even stronger in the first seven years. Taken together, these factors suggest the possibility of a strong positive feedback loop of uncertain magnitude, but the heavy tail of this uncertainty includes runaway global warming leading to a lifeless planet.
A Russian scientist suggested we should nuke asteroids that are on a collision course with Earth. However, while nukes in space could be used as a weapon against targets on Earth, they would be ineffective in asteroid deflection, as pieces of an asteroid would hit the Earth if it was intercepted at short notice or close range. This approach would not help against large, kilometer-size asteroids in any case. Observation and intervention to change the orbits of asteroids long before the risk of impact may be the best preventive measure.
Meanwhile, Russia declared that it will resume production of medium-range nuclear missiles after the US abandoned the treaty which banned these missiles. The main goal of the treaty was to prevent accidental nuclear war, as shorter-range missiles could reach Moscow from Western Europe in 5–7 minutes, and the decision-makers would have little time to evaluate the reality of the threat. However, the advent of sea-based, air-based and hypersonic missiles has eroded the definition of “medium range”, and the US has previously accused Russia of violating the treaty.
Previous newsletter: Summer 2019