Fønix: Bioweapons shelter project launch

TL;DR: We are recruiting a team with backgrounds in disaster response, physical security, or physical design to join a project building biological weapons shelters. Those who join will have the chance to use their skills and expertise to identify the most effective solution, secure funding, and deploy the project. Our ultimate aim: to lower the risk of human extinction.

Register your interest or sign up to follow our work here.

Introduction

We are building a civilizational resiliency[1] project, “Fønix Logistics,” currently incubated by EA Sweden (Effektiv Altruism Sverige), which aims to research and create the ultimate refuge, especially from non-agentic[2] disasters and with a special focus on extinction-level bioweapons releases/​(engineered) pandemics. The main reason to be excited about this project is that it could lower the risk of human extinction, as suggested by e.g. Andrew Snyder-Beattie and Ethan Alley as well as by the FTX Future Fund. Additionally, a project like this likely requires skills and expertise that might otherwise be hard to deploy in other EA-aligned projects. As one of the first team members in this project, you will have autonomy, take ownership of critical tasks and be invested from the early stage of selecting the best solutions.

Specific talent needs

Here is a list of some immediate talent needs in Fønix Logistics that might not easily find a place in other EA-aligned organisations:

  • Military backgrounds

  • Other physical security (as opposed to e.g. IT security) experts used to thinking about possible failure modes and identifying ways to mitigate them (e.g. Oil & Gas supply chains in conflict areas, Quality Assurance within biotech, etc.)

  • Disaster response professionals, such as Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, etc.

  • Generalists in physical design, who are able to think about the design and make cost estimates of everything from bunkers and ships to laboratories and eco villages (could be architects, civil engineers, urban planners, etc.)

In addition to the skills above, Fønix Logistics would greatly benefit from more typically sought-after EA skill sets:

  • Cost-effectiveness modellers

  • Epidemiologists

  • Logistics

  • Risk management

  • Project management

  • Organisational strategy and planning

  • Project planning/​scheduling

  • Budgeting/​cost estimation for buildings, retrofits and similar

  • Management consultants

  • (X-risk) Researchers

  • Other relevant skills we might have missed

Again, please fill in this form if you or someone you know would be a good fit for Fønix Logistics, or to follow our development. Note that filling in the form is only a non-committing expression of interest. You are free to describe any requirements that you would have for joining this project such as salary, work location, part-time, start date, etc. The main focus will be on assembling a strong initial team and we are willing to make accommodations to reach this goal.

We are aware that others might be working on the same idea, and we have started a Slack group to collaborate openly with all others interested in researching or building refuges. If you have already started your own project, get in touch. We would be excited to learn about your work and discuss whether the projects should be merged or if there is merit in having two competing teams executing on this idea.

Background

We first want to quickly acknowledge the long tradition of shelters and refuges both within and outside EA. Fortified buildings as a means to increase chances of survival have been around for millenia. However, with the advent of large nuclear arsenals last century, shelters moved from ensuring group survival to ensuring human survival—never before had humanity faced the very real possibility of complete extinction. As the existential risk community has identified even more pathways to human extinction beyond nuclear weapons, the awareness of the need for shelters has increased, especially within EA circles. EA Forum posts on the subject include those written by Nick Beckstead in 2014 and, more recently, Andrew Snyder-Beattie & Ethan Alley. The topic has also attracted intermittent academic investigation (Jebari 2014, Beckstead 2015, Boyd and Wilson 2019, and others). And Biological weapons shelters and Infrastructure to recover after catastrophes are listed as areas that the FTX Future Fund is interested in.

Team

Currently, Fønix Logistics consists of Ulrik as the project lead with Kayla generously supporting the project in its initial phases. We also have a couple of advisory board members and a handful of supporters happy to help review key documents and weigh in on bigger decisions. EA Sweden will support with administration and project infrastructure.

Ulrik’s professional journey started with a Mechanical Engineering degree with a minor in Mathematics from University of Pennsylvania where he graduated cum laude and was on the Dean’s List in his junior year. After graduating, he has held a variety of leadership and entrepreneurial roles within the climate tech industry and predominantly within wind energy. One of his most recent engagements was as an interim CEO of an offshore wind company where he led a team of around 15 people from the very early stages of the venture until it was incorporated and there was alignment both within the team and at the board level on the path to success (not yet on his LinkedIn, but he is happy to share details during a call). He has worked at all stages in the wind industry from selecting where to build a wind farm to inspecting delivery of wind turbine components to the construction site as well as ensuring the proper operation of producing turbines. We think this is relevant to the creation of a refuge as the process to create one is likely to roughly follow the steps taken during the construction of a wind farm.

Ulrik has also worked in several start-ups and is no stranger to risk, uncertainty and how to make something from nothing. He is currently employed full time and his work on Fønix Logistics is for the time being limited to evenings and weekends. However, he is prepared at any time to use funding to make this his full time engagement.

Kayla graduated from Oxford University with the highest grade achievable (First Class) in English Language and Literature. Since then she has run communications for the United Nations Mine Action Service office in Geneva and currently works full-time managing the community and public information of the Laidlaw Foundation. Her experience with strategic communications will be useful in managing the project, donor, and team’s image once funding is secured, although she is likely to take more of an advisory role going forward due to entering a master’s program in the fall of 2022.

Work done to date

Work to date includes outreach within EA, idea generation, preliminary idea screening, tentative shallow research into current top ideas and recruitment.

To avoid sunk costs by e.g. working on a sub optimal idea for the next 2 years only to realise there was a much better path, the team has decided to take the following approach: 1) Generate potential solutions, 2) Research and rank options to eliminate unviable candidates and select the optimal approach, 3) Implement the solution (or the portfolio of a few, less capital intensive solutions with different failure modes.)

Our first step is to generate 100 potential ideas. This number is _somewhat _arbitrarily chosen. The important part is to generate a large number of ideas. This paper from INSEAD sums it up better than we can:

“If an equal number of ideas, the best _best n_, are selected from the initial pool, the _best n_ from a larger pool will be better on average than the _best n_ from a smaller pool. For example, the tallest 5 people from a city of 1,000,000 inhabitants will be taller than the tallest 5 people from a city of 1,000 inhabitants.”

We are currently at around 50 ideas and will hit 100 this summer. To illustrate the process Ulrik has tentatively and preliminarily ranked the first 17 ideas. This is by no means a final selection of best ideas (for example, it could well be that a bunker is best, as we know talented people have promoted this solution), and great care will be taken in performing the final ranking of the 100 ideas. Ulrik has also done some shallow research and analysis on the “top” 3 ideas emerging from this analysis and would be happy to share this precursory work during a call although this will also be reworked after the final idea selection. To illustrate, we show below 7 of the 17 ideas and their associated score:

Brief descriptionScore
Other, relatively self isolated communities (especially small island populations)7.8
Support for protecting uncontacted peoples, especially ensuring their isolation during pandemics7.6
Distributed. Using e.g. homes with sealed envelopes and upgrading with sanitizing HVAC, solar+batteries, water harvesting, etc.7.0
Bushcraft/​eco village with backup equipment (like Auroville, or something even less dependent)6.5
Underground bunker5.3
Cruise ship dual use, refuge in high-risk times2.5
Large sailboat (to be fuel independent)-15.1

Lastly, we have been spending more and more time recruiting for the advisory board and more urgently, for the founding team as well as early contributors/​employees. As others have pointed out, this is perhaps the most challenging part of getting an EA project off the ground. However, the recruitment efforts so far have been limited and the general excitement about the idea gives us confidence that the task is not insurmountable.

The road ahead

Before describing the separate stages of Fønix Logistics, it might be helpful for the reader to get an overview over all tasks. In the table below rows indicate separate tasks while the columns indicate different times, progressing from left to right. The intensity of the yellow colour indicates the hours worked per month.

This simplified Gantt chart shows time moving from left to right. The different workstreams are listed top to bottom.

Stage I: Recruitment and fundraising

The next few months will be focused on recruitment in parallel with approaching potential funders. The main reason for this parallel focus is due to the chicken and egg nature of the two workstreams: Grantmakers are likely to be more excited the more proof points we have of our ability to assemble a strong team. At the same time, potential employees are more likely to want to join if we can show a pathway to reliable funding.

Regarding recruitment, as the skill sets needed are not as EA-specific as for example cause prioritisation research, we are planning to reach out beyond the EA community. Stockholm, where Ulrik is located, has a culture of entrepreneurship and a diverse, well educated workforce as well as hosting both the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and Karolinska Institutet (among top ten Life Sciences and Medicine universities worldwide).

Regarding funding, the next step is to create a plan and associated budget from now until the set of interventions is identified. This will also help us understand better the complete hiring needs as each workstream will be broken out separately and any skill gaps should become more evident. The plan will be vetted by our advisory board, EA Sweden leadership and any relevant, external experts we are able to bring in. After creating a plan and budget, we will craft the necessary documents for a funding application. It is then envisioned that the grantmakers would like additional information, such as digging into the plan and budgets as well as interviewing the founding team and talking to advisors.

Stage II: Solution identification

Once an initial team is in place and funding secured for this stage of the project, the team will build the above-mentioned list of ideas, rank them, downselect, and conduct research. The below description of the work to be done is speculative in nature as we are certain that our contributors and funders will shape the process and that we will climb a learning curve in the coming months.

To avoid skewed outcomes, such as a bias towards for-profit initiatives, we envision that scoring of the 100 ideas will be performed independently by several people. After reviewing the convergence of the final contenders, sensitivity analysis will be performed and discussions had, including the advisory board and outside experts, in order to establish consensus about which final ideas will have a more thorough review performed on them. This process could take a few weeks, perhaps a couple of months.

Each idea will have a preliminary plan and budget for implementation set up, as well as a risk register both for development/​construction but more importantly for the possible, future catastrophic scenarios we are building resiliency against. We will also rely significantly on consultations, including with HVAC experts, naval architects, anthropologists, or organisations already working to protect uncontacted peoples. There could also be a need to outsource certain parts of the analysis such as getting rough cost estimates for building a medical laboratory, or a vessel, depending on the set of top ideas.

Biorisk experts will be consulted throughout the project. But we foresee that such consultation will be more intense during Stage II, with a special focus infohazards.

The last part of the scope for this stage of Fønix Logistics is to apply for funding for the next phase.

Stage III: Preparing to build solution(s)

Once we confirm the top ideas and secure funding, work will go from being broad and multidisciplinary to becoming more focused.

Stage III will likely be some form of “project development” phase where we plan the work out until “Commercial Operations Date,” and then start executing on this plan based on both disciplined budget control as well as a keen awareness of mitigating risks as they appear (standard project management). Funding will likely be needed in phases and in case there is need to install significant equipment/​build infrastructure we need to continuously prepare for and secure large funding needs required ahead of procurement. The funding need and the associated team size is likely to remain relatively constant for 2-5 years during this “development phase” until the point where procurement happens and the funding need will increase markedly (and the team, although probably largely external employees working for our subcontractors, could include a large group of workers building/​installing whichever design we land on).

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Since you read all the way to the end, surely you want to see how Fønix Logistics develops? Or perhaps you or someone you know might be interested in joining, especially after we hopefully secure funding?

Fill out the form if you have not already done so. Critical perspectives are warmly welcome.

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Thanks to everyone who has helped us refine and edit this post. Tereza has provided lots of helpful feedback. Ajay has given the project high level input on topics including infohazards. There are also a number of other people including individuals affiliated with Charity Entrepreneurship and other, central EA organizations that have given helpful direction to this post but also the project as a whole. Any mistakes are the fault of the authors.

  1. ^

    We are using a range of different terms interchangeably throughout this post. This is because no single term yet captures the range of interventions hinted at. In essence, what all proposed approaches to “refuges” or “shelters” have in common is that they envision using currently available, mature technology to hopefully significantly reduce the risk of extinction and/​or civilizational collapse under certain Global Catastrophic Scenarios (GCSs). For example, an engineered pandemic with the potential for human extinction could possibly be hedged against by isolating a minimum viable population from the pathogen until either they have found a way to deal with the pathogen, until the pathogen disappears (even just locally) or mutates into something more benign. We know some proposals have been made for terminology to capture this range of possible interventions but still do not feel like any term accommodates even the most unusual, or “edge” solutions.

  2. ^

    By non-agentic we mean that pathogens themselves do not have agency, and hence are easier to protect against than e.g. malicious, super-intelligent AI. That said, one could argue that the people deploying a bioweapon in the form of a pathogen have agency. However, at this early phase it seems that it is more likely that extinction from a bioweapon release would happen because of unintended consequences or some type of accident. It seems unlikely that a military (or even terrorist organization) deploying a bioweapon would spend years if not decades traversing the planet to make sure every single person is killed. And a terrorist organization with the goal of human extinction is unlikely to have enough resources to deploy bioweapons at such scales. However, this will be looked more closely into during Stage II.