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.

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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

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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 …

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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