8 Recent Publications on Existential Risk (Nov 2020 update)

09 December 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. All previous updates can be found here. 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. Méjean A., Zuber S., Fleurbaey M., Pottier A. (2020) Catastrophic climate change, population ethics and intergenerational equity. Climatic Change.

Climate change threatens irreversible and dangerous impacts, possibly leading to extinction. The most relevant trade-off then may not be between present and future consumption but between present consumption and the mere existence of future generations. To investigate this trade-off, we build an integrated assessment model that explicitly accounts for the risk of extinction of future generations. Using the class of number-dampened utilitarian social welfare functions, we compare different climate policies that change the probability of catastrophic outcomes yielding an early extinction. We analyse the role of inequality aversion and population ethics. Low inequality aversion and a preference for large populations favour the most ambitious climate policy, although there are cases where the effect of inequality aversion on the preferred policy is reversed. This is due to the fact that a higher inequality aversion both decreases the welfare loss of reducing consumption of the current generation and also decreases the welfare gain of reducing the future risk of extinction.

2. Bostrom N. (2020) Ethical issues in advanced artificial intelligence. Machine Ethics and Robot Ethics 69-75.

The ethical issues related to the possible future creation of machines with general intellectual capabilities far outstripping those of humans are quite distinct from any ethical problems arising in current automation and information systems. Such superintelligence would not be just another technological development; it would be the most important invention ever made, and would lead to explosive progress in all scientific and technological fields, as the superintelligence would conduct research with superhuman efficiency. To the extent that ethics is a cognitive pursuit, a superintelligence could also easily surpass humans in the quality of its moral thinking. However, it would be up to the designers of the superintelligence to specify its original motivations. Since the superintelligence may become unstoppably powerful because of its intellectual superiority and the technologies it could develop, it is crucial that it be provided with human-friendly motivations. This paper surveys some of the unique ethical issues in creating superintelligence, and discusses what motivations we ought to give a superintelligence, and introduces some cost-benefit considerations relating to whether the development of superintelligent machines ought to be accelerated or retarded.

3. Sansone S., Arocena F. (2020) Hamsters numa roda? Aceleração e quarta revolução industrial. Civitas 20, 221-233.

The fourth industrial revolution is characterized through the development of artificial intelligence, genetic editing, nanotechnology and the interfaces between the biological, the inorganic, the social and the digital. There are authors who potentially see in it a panacea that could bring a world of post-scarcity, reaching the evolutionary overcoming of the human species in the realm of the trans-hu-man. Others raise with great concern the possibility of fearsome dystopian scenarios, and an imminent "existential risk", even greater than that of nuclear weapons. Between these two extremes, there are positions in this new techno-philosophical debate that consider both the realization of utopia and the fall in dystopia to be implausible, and propose a protopic vision, which calls for the understanding and acceptance of the inevitable aspects of the ongoing transition, and a proactive use of its possibilities as a way to preserve and strengthen the validity of human identity and freedom. In the first two sections of this work, we contextualize the current moment of technology and its transformative capacity in societies through what has been called the fourth industrial revolution. In the third section we deepen the theoretical discussion of acceleration, a defining concept for Harmut Rosa of "late modernity". Finally, the work closes by placing a fundamental question that inspires it: what are our chances of guiding technological innovation to avoid unpredictable damage?.

4. Patton M.Q. (2020) Evaluation Criteria for Evaluating Transformation: Implications for the Coronavirus Pandemic and the Global Climate Emergency. American Journal of Evaluation.

Fundamental systems transformations are needed to address the global emergency brought on by climate change and related global trends, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which, together, pose existential threats to the future of humanity. Transformation has become the clarion call on the global stage. Evaluating transformation requires criteria. The revised Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/Development Assistance Committee criteria are adequate for business as usual summative and accountability evaluations but are inadequate for addressing major systems transformations. Six criteria for evaluating transformations are offered, discussed, and illustrated by applying them to the pandemic and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. The suggested criteria illustrate possibilities. The criteria for judging any intervention should be developed in the context of and aligned with the purpose of a specific evaluation and information needs of primary intended users. This article concludes that the greatest danger for evaluators in times of turbulence is not the turbulence—it is to act with yesterday’s criteria.

5. Wilson N., Nelson C., Boyd M.J. (2020) Validation analysis of Global Health Security Index (GHSI) scores 2019. BMJ Global Health 5.

The COVID-19 pandemic powerfully demonstrates the consequences of biothreats. Countries will want to know how to better prepare for future events. The Global Health Security Index (GHSI) is a broad, independent assessment of 195 countries' preparedness for biothreats that may aid this endeavour. However, to be useful, the GHSI's external validity must be demonstrated. We aimed to validate the GHSI against a range of external metrics to assess how it could be utilised by countries. Methods: Global aggregate communicable disease outcomes were correlated with GHSI scores and linear regression models were examined to determine associations while controlling for a number of global macroindices. GHSI scores for countries previously exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome and Ebola and recipients of US Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) investment were compared with matched control countries. Possible content omissions in light of the progressing COVID-19 pandemic were assessed. Results: GHSI scores for countries had strong criterion validity against the Joint External Evaluation ReadyScore (rho=0.82, p<0.0001), and moderate external validity against deaths from communicable diseases (-0.56, p<0.0001). GHSI scores were associated with reduced deaths from communicable diseases (F(3, 172)=22.75, p<0.0001). The proportion of deaths from communicable diseases decreased 4.8% per 10-point rise in GHSI. Recipient countries of the GHSA (n=31) and SARS-affected countries (n=26), had GHSI scores 6.0 (p=0.0011) and 8.2 (p=0.0010) points higher than matched controls, respectively. Biosecurity and biosafety appear weak globally including in high-income countries, and health systems, particularly in Africa, are not prepared. Notably, the GHSI does not account for all factors important for health security. Conclusion: The GHSI shows promise as a valid tool to guide action on biosafety, biosecurity and systems preparedness. However, countries need to look beyond existing metrics to other factors moderating the impact of future pandemics and other biothreats. Consideration of anthropogenic and large catastrophic scenarios is also needed.

6. Laeven R.J.A., Magnus J.R., Ikefuji M., Muris C. (2020) DICE Simplified. Environmental Modeling and Assessment.

We analyze Nordhaus’ DICE model and show that the temperature and CO2 equations are needlessly complicated and can be simplified without loss of essence. In addition, we argue that the damage function can be altered in such a way that it lends itself to experiments involving extreme risk. We conclude that, within the philosophy of the DICE model, significant simplifications can be made which make the model more transparent, more robust, and easier to apply.

7. Traphagan J.W., Smith K.C. (2020) First, Do Nothing: A Passive Protocol for First Contact. Space Policy 54.

One of the main principles of the Hippocratic oath, which has guided medical practice for 2500 years, is Primum non nocere (first, do no harm). This means, among other things, that when the stakes are high (a patient's life) and one has no idea what one should do, it is better to do nothing at all than risk a treatment that might make things worse. We argue for a similar approach to a face-to-face first contact scenario. In such a situation, the stakes are literally the highest imaginable (the survival of humanity, perhaps even the entire terrestrial ecosystem), and we have almost nothing to go on – we will know next to nothing about our alien interlocutors and can not rely on our evolved instincts or simplistic analogies from Earth's history to guide us appropriately. The smart approach, therefore, is one of extreme passivity and caution. In particular, we argue that an inviolate “prime directive” needs to be imposed on any crew of a mission beyond near Earth such that they will do nothing, even in self-defense, that might potentially be considered threatening. While such a passive approach will forego many opportunities, first contact should be viewed primarily as setting the stage for second contact, with the goal of establishing the alien presence and communicating our harmlessness – no more. In the grand scheme of things, even the loss of the human crew is a small price to pay for the safety of the Earth and all its inhabitants.

8. Traphagan J.W., Wisian K. (2020) Protocols for encounter with extraterrestrials: Lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic. JBIS - Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 73, 234-238.

This paper explores lessons evident from the Covid-19 pandemic as a framework for thinking about contact with extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). The Covid-19 pandemic represents an opportunity to think through challenges that may arise in response to contact with ETI in part because it represents a potential threat to the entire population of Earth, thus forcing nations to implement similar measures, even if the specifics of those measures and levels of restrictions vary from one country to another. We argue that contact with ETI will not occur in a political and ideational vacuum. It will occur within an historical context and diverse cultural contexts from which people will interpret the import and risks associated with a contact event. Just as local conditions are influencing the response to Covid-19, governments and political leaders will draw on localized cultural and social conditions as they conduct risk assessments related to ETI contact and consider the value associated with managing or controlling the context and potential outcomes of a contact event. Thinking about how governments, in particular, respond to events like the Coronavirus pandemic represents an opportunity to explore how other potential existential threats to global society like contact with ETI might pan out.

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