19 Recent Publications on Existential Risk (Jan, Feb & Mar 2020 update)

post by HaydnBelfield · 2020-04-08T13:19:55.687Z · EA · GW · None comments


  January 2020 update
  February 2020 update
  March 2020 update
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Link post for: https://www.cser.ac.uk/news/recent-publications-existential-risk-january-2020/ , https://www.cser.ac.uk/news/recent-publications-feb-2020/ , and https://www.cser.ac.uk/news/recent-publications-mar-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 for the last three months.

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.

January 2020 update

1. Rampino, M. R. (2019). Relationship between impact-crater size and severity of related extinction episodes. Earth-Science Reviews, 102990.

How large must an extraterrestrial impact be to cause a peak episode of increased extinctions of life? Impact energies ≥ 3 × 107 Mt TNT (associated with terrestrial impact craters with final diameters ≥ 100 km) seem to be required to generate significant widespread climatic effects from sub-micron dust and soot in the atmosphere, leading to a distinct extinction episode (≥ 15% extinction of marine genera). Impacts creating craters smaller than ∼100 km in final diameter (in the 106 to 107 Mt TNT range) are capable of mostly regional destruction, with minimal impact on global climate or biota. These results are supported by the fact that the ages of the four known ≥ 100-km diameter craters of the last 260 My (Popigai, Chicxulub, Morokweng, and Manicouagan) are all correlative with times of documented extinction episodes, whereas smaller craters are not. The largest crater, the 180–km diameter Chicxulub crater (a ∼108 Mt TNT event) is associated with the more severe “major” mass-extinction event (≥ 45% extinction of genera) at the end of the Cretaceous. The percent species extinctions show a significant linear relationship with final crater diameter and impact energy. The very large Chicxulub impact lies close to the predicted curve of percent extinction versus impact-crater diameter (and energy), but the low-angle of impact, an unusual composition of the target area (with thick sediments rich in carbonates, sulfates and organic material), and a large excavated transient crater, may have led to the generation of unusually large amounts of CO2, widely distributed dust, soot and sulfate aerosols, and a uniquely severe impact-related environmental disaster. Chicxulub may thus be the only large-body impact associated with a “major” mass extinction in the Phanerozoic. Target sensitivity may apply to large impacts into ocean crust having only a thin cover of organic-poor and carbonate-poor pelagic sediments, and thus even large oceanic impacts (which are still unknown) may not produce enough dust, soot and aerosols to cause environmental crises leading to global extinction peaks above background levels.

2. Watson, M. J., & Watson, D. M. (2020). Post-Anthropocene Conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 35(1), 1-3.

Conditions capable of supporting multicellular life are predicted to continue for another billion years, but humans will inevitably become extinct within several million years. We explore the paradox of a habitable planet devoid of people, and consider how to prioritise our actions to maximise life after we are gone.

3. Palinkas, L. A., & Wong, M. (2019). Global climate change and mental health. Current opinion in psychology.

Although several empirical studies and systematic reviews have documented the mental health impacts of global climate change, the range of impacts has not been well understood. This review examines mental health impacts of three types of climate-related events: (1) acute events such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires; (2) subacute or long-term changes such as drought and heat stress; and (3) the existential threat of long-lasting changes, including higher temperatures, rising sea levels and a permanently altered and potentially uninhabitable physical environment. The impacts represent both direct (i.e. heat stress) and indirect (i.e. economic loss, threats to health and well-being, displacement and forced migration, collective violence and civil conflict, and alienation from a degraded environment) consequences of global climate change.

4. Cernev, T., & Fenner, R. (2020). The importance of achieving foundational Sustainable Development Goals in reducing global risk. Futures, 115, 102492.

Until recently the extensive inter-dependencies between the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which consist of 169 targets, has received limited attention. Furthermore, the impact of the non-achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals may expose humanity to forms of global catastrophic risk and existential risk. The paper examines systems approaches to identify and prioritise key SDGs whose implementation will have a desired feedback effect on other goals. Leverage points are also identified which may mitigate potential causes of global catastrophic risk and existential risk if the SDGs are not achieved, or if reinforcing feedback loops dominate. An awareness of these loops is essential and understanding the nature of the system structure they embody is important for the design of effective policy interventions. Through a detailed inspection of a Causal Loop Diagram which conceptually links all the goals based on a review of recent literature, the following foundational Sustainable Development Goals are identified; SDG 1 No Poverty; SDG3 Good Health and Well Being; SDG 14 Life Below Water and SDG 15 Life on Land. These represent vital outcomes of achieving other goals and they are also critical in maintaining both a healthy human and environmental resource base on which progress towards all goals can be built. By examining a range of potential global threats based on a review of global catastrophic risk and existential risk, a further set of goals that can act as important leverage points are identified. The most important of these is SDG 13 Climate Action and SDG 4 Quality Education with SDG 2 Zero Hunger, SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG12 Responsible Consumption and Production and SDG 16 Peace Justice and Strong Institutions also having important roles to play. The interaction of all SDGs, acting synergistically together, is important to move the global system towards desirable outcomes and reduce currently increasing levels of risk.

5. Blair, B. G. (2020). Loose cannons: The president and US nuclear posture. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 76(1), 14-26.

The US president’s unfettered authority to order the use of nuclear weapons and an unstable US nuclear posture create a compound existential risk. Reducing the risk requires eliminating the dangerously unstable warfighting contingencies of first use of nuclear weapons and launch on warning of nuclear attack from the repertoire of presidential options; re-configuring the nuclear chain of command; and building a robust and enduring nuclear command system to stabilize the contingency of second-strike retaliation on which true deterrence depends.

6. Moynihan, T. (2020). Existential risk and human extinction: An intellectual history. Futures, 116, 102495.

Of late, existential risks have become the target of an emerging field of scientifically serious study. This baptism of ‘X-risk studies’ is symptomatic of what Riel Miller has diagnosed as an ever-increasing demand for ‘futures literacy’, inasmuch as we are progressively conversant with progressively distal perils. Yet this dynamic, of incremental ‘future orientation’, is not itself without a history. We have been being swept up in the future for some time now. Accordingly, we embark upon supplying an intellectual history to humanity's responsivity to existential risks. The aim is to reveal how contemporary X-risk research emerges from the broader sweep of human history. Our contention is that providing this edifying backdrop helps legitimise the furtherance of present initiatives. This takes us to the Enlightenment. This period saw the consolidation of the various scientific vocabularies requisite for the first explicit prognoses on existential catastrophe. Yet the discovery of X-risk was a question of ‘Enlightening’, construed as humanity's global undertaking of self-responsibility, in an altogether more fundamental way. For, ultimately, it was only through realizing that we may never reason again that we became increasingly motivated to reason ever better, and, thus, were first summoned to the modernity-defining projects of long-term foresight, mitigation, and strategizing.

7. Moser, S. C. (2020). The work after “It's too late”(to prevent dangerous climate change). Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 11(1), e606.

The fact that the question “Is it too late (to prevent dangerous climate change”)? is being debated in serious science circles constitutes a culturally significant moment. This article does not offer a simplistic answer to “is it too late – or not?”, but explores the uncomfortable space of denying neither endings nor possibilities. In so doing, it asks readers to witness and engage with what appears to be a serious psychological and cultural struggle within ourselves, now publicly visible, over what and how to confront endings, what kind of hope to sustain, and how to be and act in the face of these accumulating apocalyptic (i.e., revelatory) facts. The article sketches the variety of endings being faced at this time and the psychological responses to them. It then outlines the political, policy, and practical work, as well as the deeper, underlying socio-cultural and psychological work, that the paradoxical tension between endings and possibilities demands.

8. Lushkina, T. A. (2018, October). Future of Civilization. In The International Science and Technology Conference" FarEastСon" (pp. 177-185). Springer, Cham.

In this paper, we analyze social forecasting methods using ideas that stand in as determinants of social development of civilization. An attempt is made to explain how an image of ideal future is modeled in terms of values and ideals of social order. Potentiality and necessity of a change in the future and aspirations for an optimal social order are seen as a major focus of futures studies. Evolution of social ideals and ways to recognize patterns in history prediction are considered. Content of values in the composition of social ideal was identified. Research into the structure of social ideal, anticipated dynamics and stages of externalization of ideal was made. We emphasize the role and significance of creative consciousness evolution in a complex and multi-aspect process of advancement of the future of civilization. In this context, a number of domestic and foreign conceptions providing insights into the risks of global civilization (based on a classification as a tool of scientific inquiry) are analyzed consistent with the strategies and tactics of civilization future prediction. We also pay attention to the issues of integration and differentiation of global processes, and to recognition of real danger to the humans to survive as a species on Earth.

9. Beard, S., Rowe, T., & Fox, J. (2020). An analysis and evaluation of methods currently used to quantify the likelihood of existential hazards. Futures, 115, 102469.

This paper examines and evaluates the range of methods that have been used to make quantified claims about the likelihood of Existential Hazards. In doing so, it draws on a comprehensive literature review of such claims that we present in an appendix. The paper uses an informal evaluative framework to consider the relative merits of these methods regarding their rigour, ability to handle uncertainty, accessibility for researchers with limited resources and utility for communication and policy purposes. We conclude that while there is no uniquely best way to quantify Existential Risk, different methods have their own merits and challenges, suggesting that some may be more suited to particular purposes than others. More importantly, however, we find that, in many cases, claims based on poor implementations of each method are still frequently invoked by the Existential Risk community, despite the existence of better ones. We call for a more critical approach to methodology and the use of quantified claims by people aiming to contribute research to the management of Existential Risk, and argue that a greater awareness of the diverse methods available to these researchers should form an important part of this.

10. Jordan, S. R. (2019, November). Designing Artificial Intelligence Review Boards: Creating Risk Metrics for Review of AI. In 2019 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS) (pp. 1-7). IEEE.

Discussions of the need for a review committee dedicated to ethical oversight of artificial intelligence (AI) research have not yet advanced to organization design discussions. What are the essential components for an AI research review board? Based upon precedent for composition and conduct of high-Technology review boards, one essential component is a risk-Adjusted review mechanism that assists review boards in the categorization of research needing review. In this paper, risk assessment tools are developed based upon lessons learned from other review boards, such as Institutional Biosafety Committees.

February 2020 update

1. Defence in Depth Against Human Extinction: Prevention, Response, Resilience, and Why They All Matter

We look at classifying extinction risks in three different ways, which affect how we can intervene to reduce risk. First, how does it start causing damage? Second, how does it reach the scale of a global catastrophe? Third, how does it reach everyone? In all of these three phases there is a defence layer that blocks most risks: First, we can prevent catastrophes from occurring. Second, we can respond to catastrophes before they reach a global scale. Third, humanity is resilient against extinction even in the face of global catastrophes. The largest probability of extinction is posed when all of these defences are weak, that is, by risks we are unlikely to prevent, unlikely to successfully respond to, and unlikely to be resilient against. We find that it’s usually best to invest significantly into strengthening all three defence layers. We also suggest ways to do so tailored to the classes of risk we identify. Lastly, we discuss the importance of underlying risk factors – events or structural conditions that may weaken the defence layers even without posing a risk of immediate extinction themselves.

2. Accumulating evidence using crowdsourcing and machine learning: A living bibliography about existential risk and global catastrophic risk

The study of existential risk — the risk of human extinction or the collapse of human civilization — has only recently emerged as an integrated field of research, and yet an overwhelming volume of relevant research has already been published. To provide an evidence base for policy and risk analysis, this research should be systematically reviewed. In a systematic review, one of many time-consuming tasks is to read the titles and abstracts of research publications, to see if they meet the inclusion criteria. We show how this task can be shared between multiple people (using crowdsourcing) and partially automated (using machine learning), as methods of handling an overwhelming volume of research. We used these methods to create The Existential Risk Research Assessment (TERRA), which is a living bibliography of relevant publications that gets updated each month (www.x-risk.net). We present the results from the first ten months of TERRA, in which 10,001 abstracts were screened by 51 participants. Several challenges need to be met before these methods can be used in systematic reviews. However, we suggest that collaborative and cumulative methods such as these will need to be used in systematic reviews as the volume of research increases.

3. Social choice ethics in artificial intelligence

A major approach to the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) is to use social choice, in which the AI is designed to act according to the aggregate views of society. This is found in the AI ethics of “coherent extrapolated volition” and “bottom–up ethics”. This paper shows that the normative basis of AI social choice ethics is weak due to the fact that there is no one single aggregate ethical view of society. Instead, the design of social choice AI faces three sets of decisions: standing, concerning whose ethics views are included; measurement, concerning how their views are identified; and aggregation, concerning how individual views are combined to a single view that will guide AI behavior. These decisions must be made up front in the initial AI design—designers cannot “let the AI figure it out”. Each set of decisions poses difficult ethical dilemmas with major consequences for AI behavior, with some decision options yielding pathological or even catastrophic results. Furthermore, non-social choice ethics face similar issues, such as whether to count future generations or the AI itself. These issues can be more important than the question of whether or not to use social choice ethics. Attention should focus on these issues, not on social choice.

4. The Potential Impact of Nuclear Conflict on Ocean Acidification

We demonstrate that the global cooling resulting from a range of nuclear conflict scenarios would temporarily increase the pH in the surface ocean by up to 0.06 units over a 5-year period, briefly alleviating the decline in pH associated with ocean acidification. Conversely, the global cooling dissolves atmospheric carbon into the upper ocean, driving a 0.1 to 0.3 unit decrease in the aragonite saturation state (Ωarag) that persists for ~ 10 years. The peak anomaly in pH occurs 2 years post conflict, while the Ωarag anomaly peaks 4- to 5-years post conflict. The decrease in Ωarag would exacerbate a primary threat of ocean acidification: the inability of marine calcifying organisms to maintain their shells/skeletons in a corrosive environment. Our results are based on sensitivity simulations conducted with a state-of-the-art Earth system model integrated under various black carbon (soot) external forcings. Our findings suggest that regional nuclear conflict may have ramifications for global ocean acidification.

5. The revelation of superintelligence

The idea of superintelligence is a source of mainly philosophical and ethical considerations. Those considerations are rooted in the idea that an entity which is more intelligent than humans, may evolve in some point in the future. For obvious reasons, the superintelligence is considered as a kind of existential threat for humanity. In this essay, we discuss two ideas. One of them is the putative nature of future superintelligence which does not necessary need to be harmful for humanity. Our key idea states that the superintelligence does not need to assess its own survival as the highest value. As a kind of intelligence that is not biological, it is not clear what kind of attitude the superintelligent entity may evolve towards living organisms. Our second idea refers to the possible revelation of superintelligence. We assume that the self-revelation of such entity cannot be random. The metaphor of God as a superintelligence is introduced here as a helpful conceptual tool.

6. On facing the crucial psychosocial and political-economic dimensions of anthropogenic global warming

Anthropogenic global warming is one of the most significant existential threats facing the human species. Nonetheless, most individuals largely conduct their lives in a manner that does not fully acknowledge, let alone effectively deal with this threat. This field note argues that both a psychosocial and political-economic approach could offer more in-depth perspectives to understand anthropogenic global warming and potential avenues to investigate it moving forward. In so doing, it is argued that climate change policy recommendations, and associated political action, could benefit from taking into account the dimension of our psyches on an individual and collective level, as well as the political-economic context of anthropogenic global warming.

7. El Niño/Southern Oscillation during the 4.2 ka event recorded by growth rates of corals from the North South China Sea

The 4.2 ka event that occurred during the period from 4 500–3 900 a BP was characterized by cold and dry climates and resulted in the collapse of civilizations around the world. The cause of this climatic event, however, has been under debate. We collected four corals (Porites lutea) from Yongxing Island, Xisha Islands, South China Sea, dated them with the U-series method, and measured the annual coral growth rates using X-ray technology. The dating results showed that the coral growth ages were from 4 500–3 900 a BP, which coincide well with the period of the 4.2 ka event. We then reconstructed annual sea surface temperature anomaly (SSTA) variations based on the coral growth rates. The growth rate-based SSTA results showed that the interdecadal SSTA from 4 500–3 900 a BP was lower than that during modern times (1961–2008 AD). A spectral analysis showed that the SSTA variations from 4 500–3 900 a BP were under the influence of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) activities. From 4 500–4 100 a BP, the climate exhibited La Niña-like conditions with weak ENSO intensity and relatively stable and lower SSTA amplitudes. From 4 100–3 900 a BP, the climate underwent a complicated period of ENSO variability and showed alternating El Niño- or La Niña-like conditions at interdecadal time scales and large SSTA amplitudes. We speculate that during the early and middle stages of the 4.2 ka event, the cold climate caused by weak ENSO activities largely weakened social productivity. Then, during the end stages of the 4.2 ka event, the repeated fluctuations in the ENSO intensity caused frequent extreme weather events, resulting in the collapse of civilizations worldwide. Thus, the new evidence obtained from our coral records suggests that the 4.2 ka event as well as the related collapse of civilizations were very likely driven by ENSO variability.

March 2020 update

1. Transitory mortality jump modeling with renewal process and its impact on pricing of catastrophic bonds

A number of stochastic mortality models with transitory jump effects have been proposed for the securitization of catastrophic mortality risks. Most of the studies on catastrophic mortality risk modeling assumed that the mortality jumps occur once a year or used a Poisson process for their jump frequencies. Although the timing and the frequency of catastrophic events are unknown, the history of the events might provide information about their future occurrences. In this paper, we propose a specification of the Lee–Carter model by using the renewal process and we assume that the mean time between jump arrivals is no longer constant. Our aim is to find a more realistic mortality model by incorporating the history of catastrophic events. We illustrate the proposed model with mortality data from the US, the UK, Switzerland, France, and Italy. Our proposed model fits the historical data better than the other jump models for all countries. Furthermore, we price hypothetical mortality bonds and show that the renewal process has a significant impact on the estimated prices.

2. Moving on from the Insect Apocalypse Narrative: Engaging with Evidence-Based Insect Conservation

Recent studies showing temporal changes in local and regional insect populations received exaggerated global media coverage. Confusing and inaccurate science communication on this important issue could have counterproductive effects on public support for insect conservation. The insect apocalypse narrative is fuelled by a limited number of studies that are restricted geographically (predominantly the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States) and taxonomically (predominantly some bees, macrolepidoptera, and ground beetles). Biases in sampling and analytical methods (e.g., categorical versus continuous time series, different diversity metrics) limit the relevance of these studies as evidence of generalized global insect decline. Rather, the value of this research lies in highlighting important areas for priority investment. We summarize research, communication, and policy priorities for evidence-based insect conservation, including key areas of knowledge to increase understanding of insect population dynamics. Importantly, we advocate for a balanced perspective in science communication to better serve both public and scientific interests.

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