Russian x-risks newsletter, summer 2019

This is the first Rus­sian x-risks newslet­ter, which will pre­sent news about Rus­sia and global catas­trophic risks from the last 3 months.

Given the com­bi­na­tion of high tech­nolog­i­cal ca­pa­bil­ities, poor man­age­ment, high risk tol­er­ance and at­tempts to catch up with West and China in the mil­i­tary sphere, Rus­sia is prone to tech­nolog­i­cal catas­tro­phes. It has a 10 times higher level of avi­a­tion catas­tro­phes and car ac­ci­dents than de­vel­oped coun­tries.

Thus, it seems pos­si­ble that a fu­ture global catas­tro­phe may be some­how con­nected with Rus­sia. How­ever, most of the work in global catas­trophic and ex­is­ten­tial risk (x-risks) pre­ven­tion and policy efforts are hap­pen­ing in the West, es­pe­cially in US, UK and Swe­den. Even the best poli­cies adopted by the gov­ern­ments of these coun­tries may not help if a catas­tro­phe oc­curs in an­other coun­try or coun­tries.

This newslet­ter will help to in­form the Western pub­lic of ac­tivity rel­a­tive to x-risks in Rus­sia. All in­for­ma­tion pre­sented here is based on open sources. How­ever, these sources re­quire some sys­tem­a­ti­sa­tion and de­bi­as­ing. For ex­am­ple, some Rus­sian news sources tend to pre­sent situ­a­tion as worse than they are just to at­tract at­ten­tion. Another source of bi­ases is the on­go­ing new cold war.

This is the first test is­sue of the newslet­ter, which I will is­sue ev­ery 3 months. I will pub­lish it on LessWrong, the ex­is­ten­tial risk sub­red­dit and ex­is­ten­tial risk Face­book page. I do not cur­rently have a sub­scrip­tion op­tion available. Below are news for sum­mer 2019:

1. “Plane­tary catas­tro­phe” was pre­vented af­ter a fire aboard the deep­wa­ter nu­clear sub­marine Loshar­ick “by the dead heroes” on its crew, as was said dur­ing the funeral for the vic­tims. Most likely, this was just rhetoric. How­ever, a more om­i­nous but less prob­a­ble in­ter­pre­ta­tion is that the catas­tro­phe was some­how con­nected with the Po­sei­don nu­clear tor­pedo, which is said to be ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing a 100 mega­ton cobalt-salted bomb (still not a plane­tary catas­tro­phe, even if it ex­plodes in a har­bour, but surely a re­gional one). This is, how­ever, un­likely, as Losharik is a small sub­marine, in­ca­pable of car­ry­ing such a large sys­tem.

2. Rus­sia’s biggest state-owned bank, Sber­bank, said that AI could be the last in­ven­tion of hu­man­ity. Sber­bank chair­man Ger­man Gref is known for his techno­pro­gres­sivist views; as well as one of the main in­vestors in AI de­vel­op­ment; the bank in­vited Bostrom to its con­fer­ence. While these views are not an offi­cial po­si­tion of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, the gov­ern­ment does own a large stake in the bank, and re­cently de­vel­oped plans that AI will be de­vel­oped in Rus­sia by large, gov­ern­ment-owned com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Sber­bank. One 30 May 2019, Putin held a meet­ing about na­tional AI strat­egy, and Gref was the first who spoke. Putin re­it­er­ated that any­one who has a monopoly on AI will be the ruler of the world. The plan is to in­crease the share of com­pa­nies that are us­ing AI; to cre­ate an AI ca­pa­ble of solv­ing more wider tasks; to cre­ate a Rus­sian AI chip; and to reach the top 10 list of coun­tries in terms of cita­tions of sci­en­tific re­search about AI. How­ever, the al­lo­cated bud­get is rather small—1.5 bln USD for 6 years—much less than is al­lo­cated for na­tional AI strate­gies in other coun­tries. It should also be noted that what Putin says doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally be­comes re­al­ity: he used to say a lot about democ­racy, wage in­creases, etc., while ac­tual dis­pos­able in­come is con­stantly de­clin­ing.

3. Putin warned against wind en­ergy, as he claimed it could kill worms in the ground: He said: “Will peo­ple be com­fortable liv­ing on a planet lined with a picket fence of wind­mills and cov­ered with sev­eral lay­ers of so­lar pan­els? How many birds die due to wind­mills! They shake so much that worms crawl out of the ground”. The claim about birds may have some merit, but the claim about worms is ob­vi­ously false and in­tended to mock en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. De­spite this, grass­roots en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness is grow­ing in Rus­sia, es­pe­cially con­nected with ille­gal dumps, one of which al­most led to a plane crash on the 8th of Au­gust. An ille­gal dump near an air­port at­tracted birds, which were sucked into both en­g­ines of an Air­bus; it mirac­u­lously landed on a field nearby. Per­son­ally, I was go­ing to fly this air­plane on the same route that day, but in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, so I saw on ar­rival the bags of peo­ple that had been re­moved from the crash-landed plane (no­body died, but there were in­juries).

4. Rus­sian for­est fires were claimed to be a plane­tary catas­tro­phe (be­fore the Ama­zo­nian ones came to over­shadow those in Sibe­ria in the news). The offi­cial area of the fire is around 30 000 km, but could be larger. They are prob­a­bly con­nected with ille­gal log­ging and dry­ing of wet­lands, re­sult­ing in firestorms, which re­leases soot to higher lev­els of the at­mo­sphere, much like the phe­nomenon lead­ing to nu­clear win­ter. There is a 1984 ar­ti­cle by Roland de­scribing how the USSR could start an ar­tifi­cial nu­clear win­ter by nuk­ing its taiga.

5. Kar­da­shev, the in­ven­tor of the Kar­da­shev scale of su­per­civ­i­liza­tions, died at 87. He con­tinued sci­en­tific work un­til his last days, and I was pleased to be able to speak (as usual, about the risks of SETI and ETI in gen­eral) a cou­ple of times at his sem­i­nar about SETI. His last video is here, in which he spoke about the pos­si­bil­ity of SETI via worm­holes.

6. Tar­geted bioweapons? There was an ar­ti­cle in the Guardian about the pos­si­bil­ity of racially tar­geted bioweapons. Rus­sia is not al­low­ing cit­i­zens ex­port of biosam­ples be­cause of the fear that they will be used to cre­ate tar­geted bioweapons. This cre­ates prob­lems for Rus­sian cit­i­zens who wish to use ser­vices such as 23andMe, as ex­port­ing ge­netic sam­ples is ille­gal. How­ever, one can travel abroad and leave biosam­ples there.

7. There was an­other nu­clear ac­ci­dent in North­ern Rus­sia on 8th Au­gust in Severod­v­insk. Prob­a­bly a melt­down of a small nu­clear re­ac­tor, which pow­ers the “eter­nal” cruise mis­sile Burevest­nik. CNN re­ported that it may be an ac­ci­dent con­nected with a Rus­sian Dooms­day weapon; how­ever, a nu­clear-pow­ered cruise mis­sile is not a Dooms­day weapon, as it can carry only a con­ven­tional nuke. The real dooms­day weapon is the Po­sei­don salted 100 MT tor­pedo.

In­ter­est­ing fact: there is a wide­spread Rus­sian be­lief that Au­gust is the month of catas­tro­phes. This ob­ser­va­tion re­sults from some com­bi­na­tion of co­in­ci­dences, re­laxed work dur­ing va­ca­tions, a prac­tice of test­ing new weapons sys­tems dur­ing short sum­mer months, as well as tem­per­a­ture effects on build­ing ma­te­ri­als. For ex­am­ple, the re­cent plane crash men­tioned above was re­lated to the in­creased ac­tivity of birds dur­ing sum­mer, and two re­cent nu­clear ac­ci­dents are re­lated to ac­tivity by the North­ern fleet, the op­er­a­tion of which is limited at other times of the year by ice.