8 Recent Publications on Existential Risk (December 2019 update)

05 January 2020

Each month, The Existential Risk Research Assessment (TERRA) uses a unique machine-learning model to predict those publications most relevant to existential risk or global catastrophic risk. The following are a selection of those papers identified this month.

Please note that we provide these citations and abstracts as a service to aid other researchers in paper discovery and that inclusion does not represent any kind of endorsement of this research by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk or our researchers.

1. Risk and Response to Biological Catastrophe in Lower Income Countries

Natural and intentional biological risks threaten human civilization, both through direct human fatality as well as follow-on effects from a collapse of the just-in-time delivery system that provides food, energy and critical supplies to communities globally. Human beings have multiple innate cognitive biases that systematically impair careful consideration of these risks. Residents of low-income countries, especially those who live in rural areas and are less dependent upon global trade, may be the most resilient communities to catastrophic risks, but low-income countries also present a heightened risk for biological catastrophe. Hotspots for the emergence of new zoonotic diseases are predominantly located in low-income countries. Crowded, poorly supplied healthcare facilities in low-income countries provide an optimal environment for new pathogens to transmit to a next host and adapt for more efficient person-to-person transmission. Strategies to address these risks include overcoming our natural biases and recognizing the importance of these risks, avoiding an over-reliance on developing specific biological countermeasures, developing generalized social and behavioral responses and investing in resilience.

2. The role of experts in the public perception of risk of artificial intelligence

The goal of this paper is to describe the mechanism of the public perception of risk of artificial intelligence. For that we apply the social amplification of risk framework to the public perception of artificial intelligence using data collected from Twitter from 2007 to 2018. We analyzed when and how there appeared a significant representation of the association between risk and artificial intelligence in the public awareness of artificial intelligence. A significant finding is that the image of the risk of AI is mostly associated with existential risks that became popular after the fourth quarter of 2014. The source of that was the public positioning of experts who happen to be the real movers of the risk perception of AI so far instead of actual disasters. We analyze here how this kind of risk was amplified, its secondary effects, what are the varieties of risk unrelated to existential risk, and what is the dynamics of the experts in addressing their concerns to the audience of lay people.

3. Global Catastrophic Threats from the Fungal Kingdom: Fungal Catastrophic Threats

The fungal kingdom poses major catastrophic threats to humanity but these are often unappreciated and minimized, in biological threat assessments. The causes for this blind spot are complex and include the remarkable natural resistance of humans to pathogenic fungi, the lack of contagiousness of human fungal diseases, and the indirectness of fungal threats, which are more likely to mediate their destructive effects on crops and ecosystems. A review of historical events reveals that the fungal kingdom includes major threats to humanity through their effects on human health, agriculture, and destruction of materiel. A major concern going forward is the likelihood that physiological adaptations by fungal species to global warming will bring new fungal threats. Fungal threats pose significant challenges specific to this group of organisms including the potential for intercontinental spread by air currents, capacity for rapid evolution, a paucity of effective drugs, the absence of vaccines, and increasing drug resistance. Preparedness against bio-catastrophic risks must include consideration of the threats posed by fungi, which in turn requires a greater investment in mycology-related research.

4. The Panglossian politics of the geoclique

Solar radiation management (SRM)–a form of geoengineering–creates a risk of ‘termination shock’. If SRM was to be stopped abruptly then temperatures could rise very rapidly with catastrophic impacts. Two prominent geoengineering researchers have recently argued that the risk of termination shock could be minimised through the adoption of ‘relatively simple’ policies. This paper shows their arguments to be premised on heroically optimistic assumptions about the prospects for global cooperation and sustained trust in an SRM deployment scenario. The paper argues that worst-case scenarios are the right place to start in thinking about the governance of SRM.

5. Characteristics of Microbes Most Likely to Cause Pandemics and Global Catastrophes

Predicting which pathogen will confer the highest global catastrophic biological risk (GCBR) of a pandemic is a difficult task. Many approaches are retrospective and premised on prior pandemics; however, such an approach may fail to appreciate novel threats that do not have exact historical precedent. In this paper, based on a study and project we undertook, a new paradigm for pandemic preparedness is presented. This paradigm seeks to root pandemic risk in actual attributes possessed by specific classes of microbial organisms and leads to specific recommendations to augment preparedness activities.

6. Democratizing cognitive technology: a proactive approach

Cognitive technology is an umbrella term sometimes used to designate the realm of technologies that assist, augment or simulate cognitive processes or that can be used for the achievement of cognitive aims. This technological macro-domain encompasses both devices that directly interface the human brain as well as external systems that use artificial intelligence to simulate or assist (aspects of) human cognition. As they hold the promise of assisting and augmenting human cognitive capabilities both individually and collectively, cognitive technologies could produce, in the next decades, a significant effect on human cultural evolution. At the same time, due to their dual-use potential, they are vulnerable to being coopted by State and non-State actors for non-benign purposes (e.g. cyberterrorism, cyberwarfare and mass surveillance) or in manners that violate democratic values and principles. Therefore, it is the responsibility of technology governance bodies to align the future of cognitive technology with democratic principles such as individual freedom, avoidance of centralized, equality of opportunity and open development. This paper provides a preliminary description of an approach to the democratization of cognitive technologies based on six normative ethical principles: avoidance of centralized control, openness, transparency, inclusiveness, user-centeredness and convergence. This approach is designed to universalize and evenly distribute the potential benefits of cognitive technology and mitigate the risk that such emerging technological trend could be coopted by State or non-State actors in ways that are inconsistent with the principles of liberal democracy or detrimental to individuals and groups.

7. You Can’t Handicraft the Apocalypse: The Invidious Consequences of “Opting Out"

For subjects of neoliberal authoritarianism, the precariousness of everyday life is amplified in the face of catastrophic climate change. Rather than build networks of solidarity to shape a new world, authoritarian neoliberalism encourages antisocial individualistic schemes to weather the storm by valorizing individuals who can prepare themselves for the worst. This essay extends Thorstein Veblen’s critique of the Handicraft Movement of the early twentieth century to explain the appeal of prepping, as well as its inadequacy in the face of catastrophe. Veblen shows how the Handicraft Movement was merely another way to conspicuously consume. This essay echoes that critique and recasts prepping as handicrafting the apocalypse, conspicuously consuming even at the end of the world. It shows the inadequacy in the face of an existential threat and concludes with a dialogue between Veblen and Bogdanov to theorize consciously directing industrial production toward democratic ends.

8. Does Biotechnology Pose New Catastrophic Risks?

Advances in biotechnology in the twenty-first century, fueled in large part by the field of synthetic biology, have greatly accelerated capabilities to manipulate and re-program bacteria, viruses, and other organisms. These genetic engineering capabilities are driving innovation and progress in drug manufacturing, bioremediation, and tissue engineering, as well as biosecurity preparedness. However, biotechnology is largely dual use, holding the potential of misuse for deliberate harm along with positive applications; defenses against those threats need to be anticipated and prepared. This chapter describes the challenges of managing dual-use capabilities enabled by modern biotechnology and synthetic biology and highlights a framework tool developed by a National Academies committee to aid analysis of the security effects of new scientific discoveries and prioritization of concerns. The positive aspects of synthetic biology in preparedness are also detailed, and policy directions are highlighted for taking advantage of the positive aspects of these emerging technologies while minimizing risks.

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