Accelerating Future Transhumanism, AI, nanotech, the Singularity, and extinction risk.


Assorted Links September 6th, 2010

Robin Hanson on Who Should Exist? and Ways to Pay to Exist.

IEEE Spectrum has an interview with Ratan Kumar Sinha, who designed India's new thorium reactor.

The popular website "The Big Think" has a couple transhumanist writers, Parag and Ayesha Khanna. Their latest article, Can Hollywood Redesign Humanity? continues forward the H+/Hollywood connection which has been promoted previously by Jason Silva and others. "Documentaries Ponder the Future" is another one of their articles.


Thorium: the Only Practical Way to Go Beyond Fossil Fuels

The UK Telegraph has a nice new article on thorium, the energy source that provides a practical alternative to fossil fuels, unlike pipe dreams of wind or solar scaling up fast enough to save us.

Obama could kill fossil fuels overnight with a nuclear dash for thorium

If Barack Obama were to marshal America's vast scientific and strategic resources behind a new Manhattan Project, he might reasonably hope to reinvent the global energy landscape and sketch an end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years.

We could then stop arguing about wind mills, deepwater drilling, IPCC hockey sticks, or strategic reliance on the Kremlin. History will move on fast.

Muddling on with the status quo is not a grown-up policy. The International Energy Agency says the world must invest $26 trillion (£16.7 trillion) over the next 20 years to avert an energy shock. The scramble for scarce fuel is already leading to friction between China, India, and the West.

Kirk Sorensen, the former NASA engineer that writes the excellent Energy from Thorium blog, is quoted in the article.

For those who missed it, I did a feature article on thorium back in 2006, titled "A Nuclear Reactor in Every Home".

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Dispelling Stupid Myths About Nuclear War

In response to discussion in the comments section on my recent post on nuclear war, Dave said:

Really, I mean, honestly, no one is surviving a nuclear war.

This is absolute nonsense. To quote the very first paragraph of Nuclear War Survival Skills, a civil defense manual based on in-depth research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory:

An all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States would be the worst catastrophe in history, a tragedy so huge it is difficult to comprehend. Even so, it would be far from the end of human life on earth. The dangers from nuclear weapons have been distorted and exaggerated, for varied reasons. These exaggerations have become demoralizing myths, believed by millions of Americans.

Here's another good quote:

Only a very small fraction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki citizens who survived radiation doses some of which were nearly fatal have suffered serious delayed effects. The reader should realize that to do essential work after a massive nuclear attack, many survivors must be willing to receive much larger radiation doses than are normally permissible. Otherwise, too many workers would stay inside shelter too much of the time, and work that would be vital to national recovery could not be done. For example, if the great majority of truckers were so fearful of receiving even non-incapacitating radiation doses that they would refuse to transport food, additional millions would die from starvation alone.

The whole first chapter of the book is filled with refutations of popular myths about nuclear war. When you know the science, these myths seem extremely stupid. Yet millions of people believe them.

Here is one possible fallout distribution pattern, from FEMA:

Notice that the distribution would go to the east, because the prevailing winds come from the west. That spells good news for people out west. We also notice that there are wide swaths in the map that would just be empty of fallout, including maybe 95% of the area of the western United States.

Continents are big, big places. We may or may not yet have weapons that can threaten life across their entire areas, but probably not. (We may get them soon, though.)

For more information on nuclear war, Notre Dame has an Open Courseware page with lectures from Professor Grant Matthews.

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Survivalist References

Since Popular Mechanics is focusing on survivalism, now is a good time to reference Nuclear War Survival Skills and Patriots. The latter was written by a right-wing Christian bigot, so apply salt as necessary, but many of the logistical points address what would be necessary to survive if there is a nuclear war or a hydrogen bomb is detonated over the US (EMP, lol!) It would be hard. In fact, I know it's impossible for me to both maximize my effectiveness to the Singularity and care too much about survivalism. Survivalism is important to consider, however, because the fact is that human society and civilization is a delicate thing. Food and water go away, and you have millions of psychos -- fast.

For a real underground survivalist text, see the The Killer Karavans by Kurt Saxon. Again, written by a bigot, but still, very realistic and sad. :( It could happen tomorrow. Cities need constant trucks to bring us food, water, and gasoline, otherwise everyone will get desperate.

Nuclear War Survival Skills is also funny/sad because it points out how essentially all bomb shelters built throughout the Cold War had insufficient ventilation. If there were a nuclear war, there would have been a hell on Earth as people in bomb shelters would be forced to kick each other out into the fallout cloud just so they would have enough oxygen to breathe.

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Chance of Nuclear War is Greater Than You Think: Stanford Engineer Makes Risk Analysis

Stanford Professor Emeritus Martin Hellman, a friend of SIAI and the Lifeboat Foundation, was recently featured in a press release by Stanford University, "Chance of nuclear war is greater than you think: Stanford engineer makes risk analysis":

What are the chances of a nuclear world war? What is the risk of a nuclear attack on United States soil? The risk of a child born today suffering an early death due to nuclear war is at least 10 percent, according to Martin Hellman, a tall, thin and talkative Stanford Professor Emeritus in Engineering.

Nuclear tensions in Iran and North Korea are increasing the need to take a long look at how the United States handles weapons of mass destruction, Hellman said.

Auto manufacturers assess the risk of injury to drivers, and engineers assess potential risks of a new nuclear power plant. So why haven’t we assessed the risk of nuclear conflict based on our current arms strategy? Hellman and a group of defense experts, Nobel laureates and Stanford professors are calling for an in-depth analysis.

With more than 25,000 nuclear weapons in existence and the ability to build many times more, the choice is between creating a safer world and having no world at all, Hellman wrote in his paper “Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence.”

Weapons from the Cold War still remain, but public concern for nuclear strategy has dissipated, Hellman said. Many of those who do think about it, such as political leaders, say the fantasy of nuclear disarmament is too risky for national defense, he explained.

“People who are saying change is too risky are implicitly assuming that the current approach is risk free, but no one really knows what the risk is if we don’t change,” Hellman said.

Here is a video of Martin Hellman speaking at last year's Catastrophic Risk Conference in Mountain View:

Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence from Jeriaska on Vimeo.

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Ready to Get Nuked?

Al Qaeda is ready to drop a nuke or two on us Americans:

"God willing, the nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of the Americans and the mujahideen would take them and use them against the Americans," Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the leader of al Qaeda's in Afghanistan, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television.

Note that the simplest type of nuclear weapon, the gun-type fission weapon, is essentially a cannon that fires one chunk of enriched uranium at another. It isn't brain surgery. The hard part is getting the enriched uranium. Thankfully for terrorists, there is enriched uranium at facilities in the former Soviet Union that is "kept safe" only by a couple poorly-paid night guards, and Pakistan is politically unstable.

See the Nuclear Threat Initiative for more information. Thankfully, President Obama takes the threat seriously (unlike many of my commenters), and he met with this group recently to talk about moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

Several million degrees in a fraction of a second. Thankfully I live in foggy San Francisco. Fog has the potential to absorb a lot of energy from a thermal pulse. Also, since San Francisco is on the West Coast, and the prevailing wind goes east, fallout from any ground-level explosions will be dispersed away from my location. Others might not be so lucky.

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Kearny’s Nuclear War Survival Skills

Nine or so months ago, I was working with Tom McCabe on a Palo Alto-based SIAI-funded research project that covered topics such as catastrophic risk, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and intelligence enhancement. A segment of the research involved looking for quantitative estimates of the probability of general nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. It was very difficult to find any (why aren't experts ever forced to at least come up with quantitative guesses?), but we had a few -- JFK famously estimated the likelihood of general nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis at between 33% and 50%.

To explore the topic further, Tom met with Professor Emeritus Martin Hellman. Hellman has studied nuclear risk for decades and gave the present risk of nuclear war as 1% annually. In a 2008 paper, he outlined nuclear near misses and compiled estimates others had given.

Eventually we moved on to other topics, but Tom mentioned a book to me: Nuclear War Survival Skills by Cresson Kearny, an infantry reserve lieutenant and scientist who apparently spent a fair amount of time in the jungles of Central America with a machete in hand. Kearny was a pioneer in improving the strategies and equipment for the US Army operating in jungles, and was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work.

It wasn't until a few months later that I read Nuclear War Survival Skills, and I was extremely impressed by the book. I would say it had the most surprises out of any book I've read in the last year. It turns out that the vast majority of bomb shelters built around the world during the Cold War would have been completely ineffective if there actually were a danger of fallout, due to inadequate ventilation:

Because of the worldwide extreme fear of radiation, civil defense specialists who prepare official self-help instructions for building shelters have made radiation protection their overriding objective. Apparently the men in Moscow and Washington who decide what shelter-building and shelter-ventilating instructions their fellow citizens receive - especially instructions for building and improving expedient shelters-do not understand the ventilation requirements for maintaining endurable temperature/humidity conditions in crowded shelters. It must be remembered that shelters may have to be occupied continuously for days in warm or hot weather.

Russian small expedient shelters are even more dangerously under-ventilated than are most of their American counterparts, and can serve to illustrate similar ventilation deficiencies of American shelters. Figure 6.5 is a Russian drawing (with its caption translated) of a "Wood - Earth Shelter" in a Soviet self-help civil defense booklet, "Anti-Radiation Shelters in Rural Areas." This booklet, published in a 200,000- copy edition, includes illustrated instructions for building 20 different types of expedient shelters. All 20 of these shelters have dangerously inadequate natural ventilation, and none of them have air pumps. Note that this high-protection-factor, covered-trench shelter depends on air flowing down through its "Dust Filter with Straw Packing (hay)" and out through its small "Exhaust Duct with Damper."

As part of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's participation in Defense Nuclear Agency's "Dice Throw" 1978 blast test, I built two Russian Pole- Covered Trench Shelters. These were like the shelter shown in Fig. 6.5, except that each lacked a trapdoor and filter. As anticipated, so little air flowed through these essentially dead-ended test shelters that temperatures soon became unbearable.

The issue of ventilation of shelters has been so poorly addressed in official documents that the author had to invent an expedient air pump, the Kearny Air Pump, to fill the need. Official attention to this crucial detail has been all but absent for the last 50 or more years.

Because of the apparent lack of attention to the crucial issue of ventilation, hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives could be lost in the aftermath of a general nuclear war because of people being forced to leave their shelters due to unbearable heat. If we bothered to spend billions of dollars to build fallout shelters, why did we neglect the issue of ventilation? Because of irrational fear over radiation from fallout. As Kearny points out in the book, fallout particles are mostly dangerous if they get into your food or water -- in most cases, tiny fallout particles will not have enough radioactive material to radiate very intensely or for long. Even in areas with the heaviest fallout, leaving the shelter for a 20-30 seconds to check a water supply should not be too dangerous. There is a myth that any degree of radiation can kill instantaneously. Like AI, most people's knowledge about the physics of nuclear weapons and radiation comes from Hollywood science fiction.

It gets worse: according to Kearny, many civil fallout meters can only measure levels of radiation far too low for practical use in a post-attack situation. Here was his experience with some commercial fallout meters:

Used and surplus dose rate meters and dosimeters are likely to be inaccurate or otherwise unreliable. Very few buyers have access to a radiation source powerful enough to check instruments for accuracy over their full ranges of measurements. My education regarding bargain fallout meters began in 1961, after I bought two dosimeters of a model then being produced by a leading manufacturing company and purchased in quantity by the Office of Civil Defense. Within a week after receiving these instruments, one of them could not be charged. The other was found to be inaccurate. Later I learned that the manufacturing company sold to the public its instruments that did not pass Government quality tests.

As Kearny explains, having an accurate fallout meter in the aftermath of a nuclear attack is pretty much a necessity. But so few of them exist and those that do may be unreliable. He comes to the rescue again, however, with plans for an ingeniously designed expedient fallout meter.

The book has many other extremely valuable suggestions for use during a post-attack situation. After having read the book, I've started to think that the chance of survival with this knowledge would be much, much higher than without it. Especially in the most hard-hit areas, where large ground-level explosions throw up a lot of fallout.

Besides being useful in the aftermath of a potential nuclear war, the book lets us know what to expect in the opening moments of an attack, as well as common myths about nuclear weapons and radiation. Here's a portion about what to expect in an initial attack:

The great majority of Americans would not be injured by the first explosions of a nuclear attack. In an all-out attack, the early explosions would give sufficient warning for most people to reach nearby shelter in time. Fifteen minutes or more before big intercontinental ballistic missiles (lCBMs) blasted our cities, missile sites, and other extensive areas, most citizens would see the sky lit up to an astounding brightness, would hear the thunderous sounds of distant explosions, or would note the sudden outage of electric power and most communications. These reliable attack warnings would result from the explosion of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). These are smaller than many ICBMs. The SLBM warheads would explode on Strategic Air Command bases and on many civilian airport runways that are long enough to be used by our big bombers. Some naval bases and high-priority military command and communication centers would also be targeted.

The vast majority of Americans do not know how to use these warnings from explosions to help them save their lives. Neither are they informed about the probable strategies of an enemy nuclear attack.

Nuclear bombs only vaporize a relatively small area. Like Indiana Jones, who survives a nuclear explosion in the most recent movie by jumping into a refrigerator (that part could actually be realistic!), people outside ground zero might survive a nuclear blast if they are not directly exposed to the thermal pulse and are not in front of a window or hit by flying debris. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were home-made, soil-based blast shelters near ground zero that survived completely intact, but they were mostly unused. (The authorities and citizens did not know that a single incoming Allied plane posed such a profound threat.) Kearny points out that many casualties in a nuclear attack might be due to people running to windows in major cities, looking at the sky lit up by SLBMs, only to be killed by blades of glass when otherwise-survivable ICBMs explode.

I don't think that general nuclear war is a hugely probable risk: I'd give it a 20% probability of occurring over the next 40 years, taking into account the probability of accidents where China/Russia/France/Britain/USA think one of the others is attacking them and retaliate too hastily. What I do think is interesting, however, is how woefully unprepared we would be if a nuclear war did occur. The difference between 50 million casualties and 100 million casualties could be simply a matter of knowing simple facts like 1) fallout shelters are necessary, 2) ventilation is necessary, 3) have a small store of water and food ready, 4) avoiding radiation poisoning is more important than having more than a small meal a day, 5) a fallout meter is a necessity, 6) treat injuries with "benign neglect", 7) there is enough grain storage to feed the whole country for two years even if all crops are ruined, etc.

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Nuclear Weapon UAVs

It isn't mentioned often, but there is another dimension to the nuclear threat that could become real within 10-20 years -- miniaturization of nuclear weapons continuing to the point where a nuclear weapon consists of several UAVs that converge on a location, assemble into a complete bomb, and detonate. You could use redundancy to ameliorate the risk of one of the UAVs getting shot down.

There are numerous strategic/military advantages which give this weapon a high probability of eventual development. Obviously, you would avoid using a missile, which shows up pretty definitively on a radar screen. For a first strike, this is tremendously important. Another advantage could be self-detonation in the event of discovery, something difficult to implement with conventional missiles.

Update: this technology would have a significant advantage over using UAVs alone because the warhead that could fit on a single UAV would have to be very small, and would have frustratingly low yield. A warhead built from converging components could have arbitrary yield, while retaining the stealth benefits of UAVs.

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Obama: Eliminate Nuclear Weapons

In fantastic news, President Obama has given a major speech in Prague where he called on all nations to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, saying the US would lead but only continue its reduction if other nations followed. To me, who deeply fears nuclear weapons and has spent years arguing for their reduction, this is like a dream come true.

The number one risk to humanity right now is nuclear weapons. In my opinion, the four primary foreseeable catastrophic risks threatening civilization over the next 50 years are general nuclear war, out-of-control replicators, MNT arms races, and unfriendly AI. Moving into the 21st century, we are now seeing top-level efforts to deal responsibly with one out of four. If we deal with them all, we could get our civilization to the point where the risk of doom is negligible and we can survive for millions or billions of years in happiness.

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80 Missing Computers at Nuke Lab: Watchdog

From Physorg:

Eighty computers have been lost, stolen or gone "missing" at a major US nuclear weapons lab, the nonprofit watchdog group Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has said.

The group posted online a copy of what they say is an internal letter outlining what appear to be worrisome losses at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the state of New Mexico.

The letter says that 13 lab computers were lost or stolen during the past year, three of the machines taken from an employee's home in January. Another 67 computers are deemed "missing."

"The magnitude of exposure and risk to the laboratory is at best unclear as little data on these losses has been collected or pursued," the letter dated February 3 maintains.

The letter, addressed to Department of Energy security officials, contends that "cyber security issues were not engaged in a timely manner" because the computer losses were treated as a "property management issue."

What became of the missing computers and the "security ramifications of each of the 80 systems" was to be detailed in a written report to lab officials by February 6, according to the letter.

AFP telephone calls to the lab on Friday in search of comment were not returned.

Los Alamos was created as a secret facility during World War II and was the site for the Manhattan Project that gave birth to the first nuclear bombs.

It is a major center for research related to national security, outer space, renewable energy, medicine, nanotechnology, and supercomputing.

World leaders have started to get serious about nuclear risk in recent years, but current risks from synthetic biology and all-but-certain near-future (2015+) risks from nanotechnology and AI are pretty much ignored. When the new bio or nuclear 9/11 happens, I'll be able to look back and say that I was constantly sounding the alarm and proposing countermeasures. Will you?

Recently, in The Global Spiral, an online magazine that barely anyone reads (according to, transhumanists responded to recent criticism of our philosophy. This was a good issue and I liked a lot of the articles. Immediately relevant, however, is Mark Walker's article, "Ship of Fools: Why Transhumanism is the Best Bet to Prevent the Extinction of Civilization". Walker is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Lifeboat Foundation, the only organization on the planet devoted to advancing a comprehensive set of safeguards to extinction risks. I am Fundraising Director, United States for the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Professor Drell: Eliminating the Threat of Nuclear Arms

Just in the news on Eurekalert today, more people agreeing that nuclear arms control is a big deal and needs to be addressed immediately:

President Barack Obama has made his intention of eliminating all nuclear weapons a tenet of his administration's foreign policy. Professor Sidney Drell, a US theoretical physicist and arms-control expert, explains in February's Physics World what Obama needs to do to make that honourable intention a reality.

Professor Drell, a professor emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Center, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and an adviser on technical national security and arms-control for the US Government, has recently co-authored a report called Nuclear Weapons in 21st Century US National Security, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In his article for Physics World, he explains how and why there is need now, more than ever, to introduce globally ratified systems to control the spread of nuclear arms.

Professor Drell explains: "The world is teetering on the edge of a new and more perilous nuclear era, facing a growing danger that nuclear weapons – the most devastating instrument of annihilation ever invented – may fall into the hands of 'rogue states' or terrorist organizations that do not shrink from mass murder on an unprecedented scale.

His article makes two recommendations to Obama and his team. The first is to 'revisit Reykjavik' – Reykjavik hosted a summit in 1986 where former US President Ronald Reagan and then Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to begin reducing the size of their respected countries' nuclear arsenals. As the US and Russia still possess more than 90 per cent of the world's nuclear warheads, it is imperative that they take the lead, Drell says.

Drell's second recommendation is that the new Obama administration should adopt a process for bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into effect. "The new administration should initiate a timely bipartisan, congressional review of the value of the CTBT for US security," he says.

Drell concludes: "With these two steps outlined above, President Obama has a historic opportunity to start down a practical path towards achieving his stated goal of 'eliminating all nuclear weapons.'"

Will the doves beat the hawks on this one? We can only hope.

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Hellman’s Nuclear Weapons Paper

Most people are reluctant to discuss major risks like nuclear war because they are not intellectually sophisticated enough to contemplate such a disturbing possibility in an objective manner. They may not even be consciously afraid, but still immediately twitch away from contemplating the subject due to a mostly subconscious emotional reaction. They may also place excessive faith in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, even though the myriad ways in which this scenario could break down are thoroughly familiar to defense analysts.

To come to terms with this reality, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford and one of the inventors of public key cryptography, Martin Hellman, wrote a piece last July titled "Soaring, Cryptography and Nuclear Weapons". This paper approaches the issue of nuclear war risk from the perspective of something less threatening: gliding. I suggest you check it out.

For a concurrent view, see former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's "Apocalypse Soon" from Foreign Policy magazine. Here's a couple quotes:

"On any given day, as we go about our business, the president is prepared to make a decision within 20 minutes that could launch one of the most devastating weapons in the world. To declare war requires an act of Congress, but to launch a nuclear holocaust requires 20 minutes deliberation by the president and his advisors. But that is what we have lived with for 40 years."

"There is no guarantee against unlimited escalation once the first nuclear strike occurs."

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