16 Recent Publications on Existential Risk (Nov & Dec 2019 update)
Each month, The Existential Risk Research Assessment (TERRA) uses a unique machine-learning model to predict those publications most relevant to existential risk or global catastrophic risk. The following are a selection of those papers identified for the last two months.
Please note that we provide these citations and abstracts as a service to aid other researchers in paper discovery and that inclusion does not represent any kind of endorsement of this research by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk or our researchers.
December 2019 update
Natural and intentional biological risks threaten human civilization, both through direct human fatality as well as follow-on effects from a collapse of the just-in-time delivery system that provides food, energy and critical supplies to communities globally. Human beings have multiple innate cognitive biases that systematically impair careful consideration of these risks. Residents of low-income countries, especially those who live in rural areas and are less dependent upon global trade, may be the most resilient communities to catastrophic risks, but low-income countries also present a heightened risk for biological catastrophe. Hotspots for the emergence of new zoonotic diseases are predominantly located in low-income countries. Crowded, poorly supplied healthcare facilities in low-income countries provide an optimal environment for new pathogens to transmit to a next host and adapt for more efficient person-to-person transmission. Strategies to address these risks include overcoming our natural biases and recognizing the importance of these risks, avoiding an over-reliance on developing specific biological countermeasures, developing generalized social and behavioral responses and investing in resilience.
The goal of this paper is to describe the mechanism of the public perception of risk of artificial intelligence. For that we apply the social amplification of risk framework to the public perception of artificial intelligence using data collected from Twitter from 2007 to 2018. We analyzed when and how there appeared a significant representation of the association between risk and artificial intelligence in the public awareness of artificial intelligence. A significant finding is that the image of the risk of AI is mostly associated with existential risks that became popular after the fourth quarter of 2014. The source of that was the public positioning of experts who happen to be the real movers of the risk perception of AI so far instead of actual disasters. We analyze here how this kind of risk was amplified, its secondary effects, what are the varieties of risk unrelated to existential risk, and what is the dynamics of the experts in addressing their concerns to the audience of lay people.
The fungal kingdom poses major catastrophic threats to humanity but these are often unappreciated and minimized, in biological threat assessments. The causes for this blind spot are complex and include the remarkable natural resistance of humans to pathogenic fungi, the lack of contagiousness of human fungal diseases, and the indirectness of fungal threats, which are more likely to mediate their destructive effects on crops and ecosystems. A review of historical events reveals that the fungal kingdom includes major threats to humanity through their effects on human health, agriculture, and destruction of materiel. A major concern going forward is the likelihood that physiological adaptations by fungal species to global warming will bring new fungal threats. Fungal threats pose significant challenges specific to this group of organisms including the potential for intercontinental spread by air currents, capacity for rapid evolution, a paucity of effective drugs, the absence of vaccines, and increasing drug resistance. Preparedness against bio-catastrophic risks must include consideration of the threats posed by fungi, which in turn requires a greater investment in mycology-related research.
Solar radiation management (SRM)–a form of geoengineering–creates a risk of ‘termination shock’. If SRM was to be stopped abruptly then temperatures could rise very rapidly with catastrophic impacts. Two prominent geoengineering researchers have recently argued that the risk of termination shock could be minimised through the adoption of ‘relatively simple’ policies. This paper shows their arguments to be premised on heroically optimistic assumptions about the prospects for global cooperation and sustained trust in an SRM deployment scenario. The paper argues that worst-case scenarios are the right place to start in thinking about the governance of SRM.
Predicting which pathogen will confer the highest global catastrophic biological risk (GCBR) of a pandemic is a difficult task. Many approaches are retrospective and premised on prior pandemics; however, such an approach may fail to appreciate novel threats that do not have exact historical precedent. In this paper, based on a study and project we undertook, a new paradigm for pandemic preparedness is presented. This paradigm seeks to root pandemic risk in actual attributes possessed by specific classes of microbial organisms and leads to specific recommendations to augment preparedness activities.
Cognitive technology is an umbrella term sometimes used to designate the realm of technologies that assist, augment or simulate cognitive processes or that can be used for the achievement of cognitive aims. This technological macro-domain encompasses both devices that directly interface the human brain as well as external systems that use artificial intelligence to simulate or assist (aspects of) human cognition. As they hold the promise of assisting and augmenting human cognitive capabilities both individually and collectively, cognitive technologies could produce, in the next decades, a significant effect on human cultural evolution. At the same time, due to their dual-use potential, they are vulnerable to being coopted by State and non-State actors for non-benign purposes (e.g. cyberterrorism, cyberwarfare and mass surveillance) or in manners that violate democratic values and principles. Therefore, it is the responsibility of technology governance bodies to align the future of cognitive technology with democratic principles such as individual freedom, avoidance of centralized, equality of opportunity and open development. This paper provides a preliminary description of an approach to the democratization of cognitive technologies based on six normative ethical principles: avoidance of centralized control, openness, transparency, inclusiveness, user-centeredness and convergence. This approach is designed to universalize and evenly distribute the potential benefits of cognitive technology and mitigate the risk that such emerging technological trend could be coopted by State or non-State actors in ways that are inconsistent with the principles of liberal democracy or detrimental to individuals and groups.
For subjects of neoliberal authoritarianism, the precariousness of everyday life is amplified in the face of catastrophic climate change. Rather than build networks of solidarity to shape a new world, authoritarian neoliberalism encourages antisocial individualistic schemes to weather the storm by valorizing individuals who can prepare themselves for the worst. This essay extends Thorstein Veblen’s critique of the Handicraft Movement of the early twentieth century to explain the appeal of prepping, as well as its inadequacy in the face of catastrophe. Veblen shows how the Handicraft Movement was merely another way to conspicuously consume. This essay echoes that critique and recasts prepping as handicrafting the apocalypse, conspicuously consuming even at the end of the world. It shows the inadequacy in the face of an existential threat and concludes with a dialogue between Veblen and Bogdanov to theorize consciously directing industrial production toward democratic ends.
Advances in biotechnology in the twenty-first century, fueled in large part by the field of synthetic biology, have greatly accelerated capabilities to manipulate and re-program bacteria, viruses, and other organisms. These genetic engineering capabilities are driving innovation and progress in drug manufacturing, bioremediation, and tissue engineering, as well as biosecurity preparedness. However, biotechnology is largely dual use, holding the potential of misuse for deliberate harm along with positive applications; defenses against those threats need to be anticipated and prepared. This chapter describes the challenges of managing dual-use capabilities enabled by modern biotechnology and synthetic biology and highlights a framework tool developed by a National Academies committee to aid analysis of the security effects of new scientific discoveries and prioritization of concerns. The positive aspects of synthetic biology in preparedness are also detailed, and policy directions are highlighted for taking advantage of the positive aspects of these emerging technologies while minimizing risks.
November 2019 update
Humanity is facing multiple possible apocalypses, with narratives that often miss an important point: The apocalypse probably won’t be quick or final. It will be an environment, not an event or an end point for humanity. The apocalypse is more likely to bring misery than catharsis or salvation. Although worst-case scenarios theoretically make it easier to prevent dire outcomes, in the case of slow-moving apocalypses such as climate change, it’s difficult for humans to envision the scale of the problem and to imagine how we will actually experience it.
Planetary warming is one of several existential threats to human civilization. We are now in the climate end-game, facing a choice between dramatic action or a world plunged into outright chaos. The consequences of a failure to respond appropriately to the risks are explored in a scenario that illustrates the impacts of poorly-mitigated fossil fuel use over the next 50 years, including massive disruption of human societies, and identifies the main causes of the epochal failure of governments to protect the people and their future.
This article presents a scenario portraying the economic and human costs that antimicrobial resistance could impose on society 30 years from now, if it is not addressed soon.
This article describes how an India-Pakistan nuclear war might come to pass, and what the local and global effects of such a war might be. The direct effects of this nuclear exchange would be horrible; the authors estimate that 50 to 125 million people would die, depending on whether the weapons used had yields of 15, 50, or 100 kilotons. The ramifications for Indian and Pakistani society would be major and long lasting, with many major cities largely destroyed and uninhabitable, millions of injured people needing care, and power, transportation, and financial infrastructure in ruins. But the climatic effects of the smoke produced by an India-Pakistan nuclear war would not be confined to the subcontinent, or even to Asia. Those effects would be enormous and global in scope.
Comet disintegration proceeds through both sublimation and discrete splitting events. The cross-sectional area of material ejected by a comet may, within days, become many times greater than that of the Earth, making encounters with such debris much more likely than collisions with the nucleus itself. The hierarchic fragmentation and sublimation of a large comet in a short-period orbit may yield many hundreds of such short-lived clusters. We model this evolution with a view to assessing the probability of an encounter that might have significant terrestrial effects, through atmospheric dusting or multiple impacts. Such an encounter may have contributed to the large animal extinctions and sudden climatic cooling of 12 900 yr ago, and the near-simultaneous collapse of civilisations around 2350 BC.
Anthropogenic climate change is one of the most existential threats humanity has faced. Its eventual outcomes, if we do not intervene now, will be catastrophic. Landscape architects are in a unique position to become some of the most influential voices in identifying solutions. There is no silver bullet that will solve the crisis. Multiple strategies require a systems-thinking approach on a variety of fronts and at a diversity of scales. Designing a more resilient future must span the spectrum of ecological, economic, and community-based approaches to tackle big topics like regaining the planet’s biodiversity, rethinking the impacts of our current agricultural practices, and engaging political leaders and ordinary citizens to support strategic investments that will reduce risk.
Anxieties over the potential impacts of climate change, often framed in apocalyptic language, are having a profound, but little studied effect on the contemporary Western urbanscape. This article examines the ways in which current theorizations of ‘ecological gentrification’ express only half the process, describing how green space is used for social control, but not how ecology is used as a justification regime for such projects. As urbanites seek out housing and living practices that have a lower environmental impact, urban planners have responded by providing large-scale regeneration of the urbanscape. With the demand for this housing increasing, questions of inequality, displacement and dispossession arise. I ask whether apocalyptic anxiety is being enrolled in the justification regimes of these projects to make them hard to resist at the planning and implementation stages. The article shows that, in capitalizing on collective anxiety surrounding an apocalyptic future, these projects depoliticize subjects by using the empty signifier, ‘Sustainability’, leading them into an immuno-political relationship to the urbanscape. This leaves subjects feeling protected from both responsibility for, and the impacts of, climate change. Ultimately, this has the consequence of gentrification coupled with potentially worsening consumptive practices, rebound effects and the depoliticization of the environmentally conscious urbanite.
Greenhouse-gas emissions are indirectly causing future deaths by multiple mechanisms. For example, reduced food and water supplies will exacerbate hunger, disease, violence, and migration. How will anthropogenic global warming (AGW) affect global mortality due to poverty around and beyond 2100? Roughly, how much burned fossil carbon corresponds to one future death? What are the psychological, medical, political, and economic implications? Predicted death tolls are crucial for policy formulation, but uncertainty increases with temporal distance from the present and estimates may be biased. Order-of-magnitude estimates should refer to literature from diverse relevant disciplines. The carbon budget for 2°C AGW (roughly 1012 tonnes carbon) will indirectly cause roughly 109 future premature deaths (10% of projected maximum global population), spread over one to two centuries. This zeroth-order prediction is relative and in addition to existing preventable death rates. It lies between likely best- and worst-case scenarios of roughly 3 × 108 and 3 × 109, corresponding to plus/minus one standard deviation on a logarithmic scale in a Gaussian probability distribution. It implies that one future premature death is caused every time roughly 1,000 (300–3,000) tonnes of carbon are burned. Therefore, any fossil-fuel project that burns millions of tons of carbon is probably indirectly killing thousands of future people. The prediction may be considered valid, accounting for multiple indirect links between AGW and death rates in a top-down approach, but unreliable due to the uncertainty of climate change feedback and interactions between physical, biological, social, and political climate impacts (e.g., ecological cascade effects and co-extinction). Given universal agreement on the value of human lives, a death toll of this unprecedented magnitude must be avoided at all costs. As a clear political message, the “1,000-tonne rule” can be used to defend human rights, especially in developing countries, and to clarify that climate change is primarily a human rights issue.