Global Catastrophic Risk Research Page

From Seth Baum:

Global catastrophic risks (GCR) are risks of events that could significantly harm or even destroy human civilization at the global scale. GCR is related to the concept of existential risk, which is risk of events that would cause humanity to no longer exist. (Note that Nick Bostrom, who coined the term existential risk, defines it in a slightly different way.) Prominent GCRs include climate change, nuclear warfare, pandemics, and artificial general intelligence. Due to the breadth of the GCRs themselves and the issues that GCRs raise, the study of GCR is quite interdisciplinary.

According to a range of ethical views, including my views, reducing GCR should be our top priority as individuals and as a society. In short, if a global catastrophe occurs, then not much else matters, since so much of what we might care about (such as human wellbeing, the wellbeing of non-human animals, or the flourishing of ecosystems) would be largely or entirely wiped out by the catastrophe. The details about prioritizing GCR are a bit more complicated than this (and are …

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Michio Kaku on 2013 Solar Maximum: “It Would Paralyze the Planet Earth”

Maybe it’s nothing at all! Maybe. Still, I have enough room in my thoughts to consider this, even if the probability is low. I don’t think anyone has the expertise to say for sure one way or the other.

A real analysis would involve probability distributions over solar energy flux and expensive tests on electronic equipment.

This is a good test case for our reasoning on global risk probabilities — are we quick to make unqualified judgments, or are we willing to spend the time to find the facts?

A commenter pointed out that scientists actually predict that this solar maximum will be the least intense since 1928, but this prediction is meaningless because below-average solar maxima can still be extremely intense:

“If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78,” says panel chairman Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.

It is tempting to describe such a cycle as “weak” or “mild,” but that …

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UK Government Chief Scientist: Solar Storms Could Lead to a “Global Katrina”, Costing Over $2 Trillion

From The Guardian:

The threat of solar storms that could wreak havoc on the world’s electronic systems must be taken more seriously, the UK government’s chief scientist has warned. A severe solar storm could damage satellites and power grids around the world, he said, leading to a “global Katrina” costing the world’s economies as much as $2tn (£1.2tn).

“This issue of space weather has got to be taken seriously,” said John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC. “We’ve had a relatively quiet [period] in space weather and we can expect that quiet period to end. Over the same time, over that period, the potential vulnerability of our systems has increased dramatically. Whether it’s the smart grid in our electricity systems or the ubiquitous use of GPS in just about everything these days.”

Our electrical grid is completely vulnerable. None of the major transformers are contained in Faraday cages ready to be sealed off in the case of a coronal …

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Geomagnetic Storm in Progress

In other, potentially civilization-saving news, NSF-affiliated scientists are rolling out the first system that may help predict coronal mass ejections and other solar storms one-to-four days in advance. Would power companies be foresightful enough to shut down the grid for a few days in the instance of a truly major solar storm? We can only hope so.

To search for science on the connection between solar storms and earthquakes, see here. However, I doubt earthquakes are what we should be worried about. Still, did you know that geomagnetic storms and earthquakes have actually been linked?

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Happiness Set Point and Existential Risk

Talking to Phil, Stephen, and PJ on FastForward Radio last night, I made a point that I make often in person but I don’t think I’ve ever said on my blog.

The point is a reaction to accusations of doomsaying. People say, “you’re so negative, contemplating catastrophic scenarios and apocalypse!” My response is that rather than being indicative of me being pessimistic or depressed, it is actually evidence that I am a happy person. Because I have a high happiness set point, I am enabled to consider negative scenarios without suffering personal depression or momentary sadness. I am immune from the reactive flinching away that most people have when they consider nuclear war or robots destroying all humans. Well, not entirely immune, but certainly more immune than most, and acclimation is part of it.

Because of my high happiness set point, there are greater volumes of idea space that I can comfortably navigate. Try it. Can you consider nuclear war in an entirely objective way, thinking about scientific facts and evidence, rather than fixating on the emotional human impact? …

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Yellowstone Caldera has Risen Three Inches Per Year for Last Three Years

I saw this at the Daily Mail, which everyone should know is a very unreliable source, but it’s still a little concerning:

They said that the super-volcano underneath the Wyoming park has been rising at a record rate since 2004 – its floor has gone up three inches per year for the last three years alone, the fastest rate since records began in 1923.

But hampered by a lack of data they have stopped short of an all-out warning and they are unable to put a date on when the next disaster might take place.

When the eruption finally happens it will dwarf the effect of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which erupted in April last year, causing travel chaos around the world.

The University of Utah’s Bob Smith, an expert in Yellowstone’s volcanism told National Geographic: “It’s an extraordinary uplift, because it covers such a large area and the rates are so high.”

“At the beginning we were concerned it could be leading up to an eruption.”

The prior probability of a catastrophic eruption per year is about 0.00014%. …

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Global Catastrophic Risks in the Spotlight at Society for Risk Analysis Conference

Today I attended the global catastrophic risk sessions at the Society for Risk Analysis annual meeting in Salt Lake City, and was very pleased by the attendance at these two sessions. Two former Presidents of the society attended, and one, Jonathan Weiner, gave a compelling talk that reminded me very much of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks”. Jonathan called for more attention to global catastrophic risks, including global financial crises, and pointed out specific biases that prevent people from giving due attention to these risks. The whole experience gave me the strong impression that the risk analysis mainstream is very much interested in global catastrophic risks. Congratulations to Seth Baum for spearheading this effort.

Robin Hanson gave a fascinating talk on refuge entry futures. Basically, the idea is that you could potentially judge the probability of catastrophic risks better than the status quo by seeing how many people would be willing to buy tickets to enter secure refuges in case of a disaster or some triggering event.

My talk, which …

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2013 Solar Maximum Resources

2008 report from US National Academies of Sciences’ Space Studies Board:

Severe Space Weather Events — Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report

NASA Science News, June 4, 2010, “As the Sun Awakens, NASA Keeps a Wary Eye on Space Weather”

Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, explains what it’s all about:

“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss.”

The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled “Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts.” It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, …

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Contrasting Views on the Stability of the US Power Grid

“Why it’s hard to crash the electric grid” from Eurekalert:

Last March, the U.S. Congress heard testimony about a scientific study in the journal Safety Science. A military analyst worried that the paper presented a model of how an attack on a small, unimportant part of the U.S. power grid might, like dominoes, bring the whole grid down.

Members of Congress were, of course, concerned. Then, a similar paper came out in the journal Nature the next month that presented a model of how a cascade of failing interconnected networks led to a blackout that covered Italy in 2003.

These two papers are part of a growing reliance on a particular kind of mathematical model — a so-called topological model — for understanding complex systems, including the power grid.

And this has University of Vermont power-system expert Paul Hines concerned.

“Some modelers have gotten so fascinated with these abstract networks that they’ve ignored the physics of how things actually work — like electricity infrastructure,” Hines says, “and this can lead you grossly astray.”

For example, the Safety Science

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Society for Risk Analysis Annual Meeting Presentation

This is just a reminder that I will be presenting at the Society for Risk Analysis annual meeting in Salt Lake City on December 5-8. The meeting is open to anyone interested in risk analysis. Registration is $500. Robin Hanson and Seth Baum will be there as well. My presentation will be part of the “Assessment, Communication and Perception of Nanotechnology” track. The full session list is here. Seth will be chairing the “Methodologies for Global Catastrophic Risk Assessment” track, where Robin will be giving his talk.

Here’s my abstract:

T3-F.4 14:30 Public Scholarship For Global Catastrophic Risks. Anissimov M*; Singularity Institute

Abstract: Global catastrophic risks (GCRs) are risks that threaten civilization on a global scale, including nuclear war, ecological collapse, pandemics, and poorly understood risks from emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Public perception of GCRs is important because these risks and responses to them are often driven by public activities or by the public policies of democracies. However, much of the public perception is based on science …

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Doubt Thrown on Uncle Fester’s Botulism Recipe

In the comments, Martin said:

I wonder how accurate it is. Uncle Fester became underground famous in the 90s when he published books on meth and acid manufacture, but other clandestine chemists criticized his syntheses for being inaccurate.

From this small snippet, it sounds like he wants you to go out and find the right Clostridium species and strains in soil and culture them yourself, which sounds as impractical as his suggestion in the acid book to grow acres of ergot-infested rye. :)

Any more comments on why this is impractical? It sounds much simpler than growing acres of ergot-infested rye. He describes how he would isolate spores, first by heating the culture (this kills anything that is not a spore), then encouraging growth in an anoxic environment (kills anything that is not anaerobic). This leaves only anaerobic bacteria derived from spores.

The book does claim that botulinum germs are “fussy about what they like to grow in, its pH, and its temperature” and that “This need to exclude air from the environment where the …

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Instructions for Mass Manufacture of Botulinum Toxin Freely Available Online

Properly delivered from a plane, a few grams of botulinum toxin could kill hundreds of thousands, if not more, in a major city.

Silent Death by “Uncle Fester” has the full process instructions, including details on optimal delivery.

The LD-50 of botulinum injected into chimpanzees is 50 nanograms.

Combine it with effective microbots, and you have a situation where anyone can kill anyone without accountability.

This is one of the reasons I want a Friendly AI “god” (really more like a machine) to watch over me is that the dangers will simply multiply beyond human capability to manage.

Here’s a bit of an excerpt from my version of Silent Death:

Botulin is the second most powerful poison known, taking the runner up position to a poison made by an exotic strain of South Pacific coral bacteria. The fatal dose of pure botulin is in the neighborhood of 1 microgram, so there are 1 million fatal doses in a gram of pure botulin.

The bacteria that makes botulin, Clostridia botulinum, is found all over …

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