Archive for the ‘existential risks’ category: Page 86

Sep 1, 2009

Keeping genes out of terrorists’ hands

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, chemistry, counterterrorism, existential risks, policy

Nature News reports of a growing concern over different standards for DNA screening and biosecurity:

“A standards war is brewing in the gene-synthesis industry. At stake is the way that the industry screens orders for hazardous toxins and genes, such as pieces of deadly viruses and bacteria. Two competing groups of companies are now proposing different sets of screening standards, and the results could be crucial for global biosecurity.

“If you have a company that persists with a lower standard, you can drag the industry down to a lower level,” says lawyer Stephen Maurer of the University of California, Berkeley, who is studying how the industry is developing responsible practices. “Now we have a standards war that is a race to the bottom.”

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May 3, 2009

Swine Flu Update: are we entering an Age of Pandemics?

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, existential risks, futurism, geopolitics, nanotechnology, space, sustainability

May 2: Many U.S. emergency rooms and hospitals crammed with people… ”Walking well” flood hospitals… Clinics double their traffic in major cities … ER rooms turn away EMT cases. — CNN

Update May 4: Confirmed cases of H1N1 virus now at 985 in 20 countries (Mexico: 590, 25 deaths) — WHO. In U.S.: 245 confirmed U.S. cases in 35 states. — CDC.

“We might be entering an Age of Pandemics… a broad array of dangerous emerging 21st-century diseases, man-made or natural, brand-new or old, newly resistant to our current vaccines and antiviral drugs…. Martin Rees bet $1,000 that bioterror or bioerror would unleash a catastrophic event claiming one million lives in the next two decades…. Why? Less forest, more contact with animals… more meat eating (Africans last year consumed nearly 700 million wild animals… numbers of chickens raised for food in China have increased 1,000-fold over the past few decades)… farmers cut down jungle, creating deforested areas that once served as barriers to the zoonotic viruses…” — Larry Brilliant, Wall Street Journal

May 2, 2009

From financial crisis to global catastrophe

Posted by in categories: economics, existential risks

From financial crisis to global catastrophe

Financial crisis which manifested in the 2008 (but started much earlier) has led to discussion in alarmists circles — is this crisis the beginning of the final sunset of mankind? In this article we will not consider the view that the crisis will suddenly disappear and everything returns to its own as trivial and in my opinion false. Transition of the crisis into the global catastrophe emerged the following perspective:
1) The crisis is the beginning of long slump (E. Yudkowsky term), which gradually lead mankind to a new Middle Ages. This point of view is supported by proponents of Peak Oil theory, who believe that recently was passed peak of production of liquid fuels, and since that time, the number of oil production begins to drop a few percent each year, according to bell curve, and that fossil fuel is a necessary resource for the existence of modern civilization, which will not be able to switch to alternative energy sources. They see the current financial crisis as a direct consequence of high oil prices, which brace immoderate consumption. The maintenance is the point of view is the of «The peak all theory», which shows that not only oil but also the other half of the required resources of modern civilization will be exhausted in the next quarter of century. (Note that the possibility of replacing some of resources with other leads to that peaks of each resource flag to one moment in time.) Finally, there is a theory of the «peak demand» — namely, that in circumstances where the goods produced more then effective demand, the production in general is not fit, which includes the deflationary spiral that could last indefinitely.
2) Another view is that the financial crisis will inevitably lead to a geopolitical crisis, and then to nuclear war. This view can be reinforced by the analogy between the Great Depression and novadays. The Great Depression ended with the start of the Second World War. But this view is considering nuclear war as the inevitable end of human existence, which is not necessarily true.
3) In the article “Scaling law of the biological evolution and the hypothesis of the self-consistent Galaxy origin of life”. (Advances in Space Research V.36 (2005), P.220–225” Russian scientist A. D. Panov showed that the crises in the history of humanity became more frequent in curse of history. Each crisis is linked with the destruction of some old political system, and with the creation principle technological innovation at the exit from the crisis. 1830 technological revolution lead to industrial world (but peak of crisis was of course near 1815 – Waterloo, eruption of Tambora, Byron on the Geneva lake create new genre with Shelly and her Frankeshtain.) One such crisis happened in 1945 (dated 1950 in Panov’s paper – as a date of not the beginning of the crisis, but a date of exit from it and creation of new reality) when the collapse of fascism occurred and arose computers, rockets and atomic bomb, and bipolar world. An important feature of these crises is that they follow a simple law: namely, the next crisis is separated from the preceding interval of time to 2.67+/- 0.15 shorter. The last such crisis occurred in the vicinity of 1991 (1994 if use Panov’s formula from the article), when the USSR broke up and began the march of the Internet. However, the schedule of crisis lies on the hyperbole that comes to the singularity in the region in 2020 (Panov gave estimate 2004+/-15, but information about 1991 crisis allows to sharpen the estimate). If this trend continues to operate, the next crisis must come after 17 years from 1991 , in 2008, and another- even after 6.5 years in 2014 and then the next in 2016 and so on. Naturally it is desirable to compare the Panov’s forecast and the current financial crisis.
Current crisis seems to change world politically and technologically, so it fit to Panov’s theory which predict it with high accuracy long before. (At least at 2005 – but as I now Panov do not compare this crisis with his theory.) But if we agree with Panov’s theory we should not expect global catastrophe now, but only near 2020. So we have long way to it with many crisises which will be painful but not final. (more…)

Feb 24, 2009

I Don’t Want To Live in a Post-Apocalyptic World

Posted by in categories: asteroid/comet impacts, defense, existential risks, futurism, habitats, robotics/AI, space

Image from The Road film, based on Cormac McCarthy's book

How About You?
I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the recommendation of my cousin Marie-Eve. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world and the main protagonists — a father and son — basically spend all their time looking for food and shelter, and try to avoid being robbed or killed by other starving survivors.

It very much makes me not want to live in such a world. Everybody would probably agree. Yet few people actually do much to reduce the chances of of such a scenario happening. In fact, it’s worse than that; few people even seriously entertain the possibility that such a scenario could happen.

People don’t think about such things because they are unpleasant and they don’t feel they can do anything about them, but if more people actually did think about them, we could do something. We might never be completely safe, but we could significantly improve our odds over the status quo.

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Feb 20, 2009

Bill Joy: What I’m worried about, what I’m excited about

Posted by in categories: education, existential risks

Technologist and futurist Bill Joy talks about several big worries for humanity — and several big hopes in the fields of health, education and future tech.

Feb 14, 2009

Russian Lifeboat Foundation NanoShield

Posted by in categories: cybercrime/malcode, existential risks, nanotechnology, policy

I have translated into Russian “Lifeboat Foundation Nanoshield” and I have some thoughts about it:

1) The effective mean of defense against ecofagy would be to turn in advance all the matter on the Earth into nanorobots. Just as every human body is composed of living cells (although this does not preclude the emergence of cancer cells). The visible world would not change. All object will consist of nano-cells, which would have sufficient immune potential to resist almost any foreseeable ecofagy. (Except purely informational like computer viruses). Even in each leaving cell would be small nanobot, which would control it. Maybe the world already consists of nanobots.
2) The authors of the project suggest that ecofagic attack would consist of two phases — reproduction and destruction. However, creators of ecofagy, could make three phases — first phase would be a quiet distribution throughout the Earth’s surface, under surfase, in the water and air. In this phase nanorobots will multiply in slow rate, and most importantly, sought to be removed from each other on the maximum distance. In this case, their concentration everywhere on the Earth as a result would be 1 unit on the cube meter (which makes them unrecognazible). And only after it they would start to proliferate intensely, simultaneously creating nanorobots soldiers who did not replicate, but attack the defensive system. In doing so, they first have to suppress protection systems, like AIDS. Or as a modern computer viruses switches off the antivirus. Creators of the future ecofagy must understand it. As the second phase of rapid growth begins everywhere on the surface of the Earth, then it would be impossible to apply the tools of destruction such as nuclear strikes or aimed rays, as this would mean the death of the planet in any case — and simply would not be in store enough bombs.
3) The authors overestimate the reliability of protection systems. Any system has a control center, which is a blank spot. The authors implicitly assume that any person with a certain probability can suddenly become terrorist willing to destroy the world (and although the probability is very small, a large number of people living on Earth make it meaningful). But because such a system will be managed by people, they may also want to destroy the world. Nanoshield could destroy the entire world after one erroneous command. (Even if the AI manages it, we cannot say a priori that the AI cannot go mad.) The authors believe that multiple overlapping of Nanoshield protection from hackers will make it 100 % safe, but no known computer system is 100 % safe – but all major computer programs were broken by hackers, including Windows and IPod.
4) Nanoshield could develop something like autoimmunity reaction. The author’s idea that it is possible to achieve 100 % reliability by increasing the number of control systems is very superficial, as well as the more complex is the system, the more difficult is to calculate all the variants of its behavior, and the more likely it will fail in the spirit of the chaos theory.
5) Each cubic meter of oceanic water contains 77 million living beings (on the northern Atlantic, as the book «Zoology of Invertebrates» tells). Hostile ecofages can easily camouflage under natural living beings, and vice versa; the ability of natural living beings to reproduce, move and emit heat will significantly hamper detection of ecofages, creating high level of false alarms. Moreover, ecofages may at some stage in their development be fully biological creatures, where all blueprints of nanorobot will be recorded in DNA, and thus be almost no distinguishable from the normal cell.
6) There are significant differences between ecofages and computer viruses. The latter exist in the artificial environment that is relatively easy to control — for example, turn off the power, get random access to memory, boot from other media, antivirus could be instantaneous delivered to any computer. Nevertheless, a significant portion of computers were infected with a virus, but many users are resigned to the presence of a number of malware on their machines, if it does not slow down much their work.
7) Compare: Stanislaw Lem wrote a story “Darkness and mold” with main plot about ecofages.
8 ) The problem of Nanoshield must be analyzed dynamically in time — namely, the technical perfection of Nanoshield should precede technical perfection of nanoreplikators in any given moment. From this perspective, the whole concept seems very vulnerable, because to create an effective global Nanoshield require many years of development of nanotechnology — the development of constructive, and political development — while creating primitive ecofages capable, however, completely destroy the biosphere, is required much less effort. Example: Creating global missile defense system (ABM – still not exist) is much more complex technologically and politically, than the creation of intercontinental nuclear missiles.
9) You should be aware that in the future will not be the principal difference between computer viruses and biological viruses and nanorobots — all them are information, in case of availability of any «fabs» which can transfer information from one carrier to another. Living cells could construct nanorobots, and vice versa; spreading over computer networks, computer viruses can capture bioprinters or nanofabs and force them to perform dangerous bioorganizms or nanorobots (or even malware could be integrated into existing computer programs, nanorobots or DNA of artificial organisms). These nanorobots can then connect to computer networks (including the network which control Nanoshield) and send their code in electronic form. In addition to these three forms of the virus: nanotechnology, biotechnology and computer, are possible other forms, for example, cogno — that is transforming the virus in some set of ideas in the human brain which push the man to re-write computer viruses and nanobots. Idea of “hacking” is now such a meme.
10) It must be noted that in the future artificial intelligence will be much more accessible, and thus the viruses would be much more intelligent than today’s computer viruses, also applies to nanorobots: they will have a certain understanding of reality, and the ability to quickly rebuild itself, even to invent its innovative design and adapt to new environments. Essential question of ecofagy is whether individual nanorobots are independent of each other, as the bacteria cells, or they will act as a unified army with a single command and communication systems. In the latter case, it is possible to intercept the management of hostile army ecofages.
11) All that is suitable to combat ecofagy, is suitable as a defensive (and possibly offensive) weapons in nanowar.
12) Nanoshield is possible only as global organization. If there is part of the Earth which is not covered by it, Nanoshield will be useless (because there nanorobots will multiply in such quantities that it would be impossible to confront them). It is an effective weapon against people and organizations. So, it should occur only after full and final political unification of the globe. The latter may result from either World War for the unification of the planet, either by merging of humanity in the face of terrible catastrophes, such as flash of ecofagy. In any case, the appearance of Nanoshield must be preceded by some accident, which means a great chance of loss of humanity.
13) Discovery of «cold fusion» or other non-conventional energy sources will make possible much more rapid spread of ecofagy, as they will be able to live in the bowels of the earth and would not require solar energy.
14) It is wrong to consider separately self-replicating and non-replitcating nanoweapons. Some kinds of ecofagy can produce nano-soldiers attacking and killing all life. (This ecofagy can become a global tool of blackmail.) It has been said that to destroy all people on the Earth can be enough a few kilograms of nano-soldiers. Some kinds of ecofagy in early phase could dispersed throughout the world, very slowly and quietly multiply and move, and then produce a number of nano-soldiers and attack humans and defensive systems, and then begin to multiply intensively in all areas of the globe. But man, stuffed with nano-medicine, can resist attack of nanosoldier as well as medical nanorobots will be able to neutralize any poisons and tears arteries. In this small nanorobot must attack primarily informational, rather than from a large selection of energy.
15) Did the information transparency mean that everyone can access code of dangerous computer virus, or description of nanorobot-ecofage? A world where viruses and knowledge of mass destruction could be instantly disseminated through the tools of information transparency is hardly possible to be secure. We need to control not only nanorobots, but primarily persons or other entities which may run ecofagy. The smaller is the number of these people (for example, scientists-nanotechnologist), the easier would be to control them. On the contrary, the diffusion of knowledge among billions of people will make inevitable emergence of nano-hackers.
16) The allegation that the number of creators of defense against ecofagy will exceed the number of creators of ecofagy in many orders of magnitude, seems doubtful, if we consider an example of computer viruses. Here we see that, conversely, the number of virus writers in the many orders of magnitude exceeds the number of firms and projects on anti-virus protection, and moreover, the majority of anti-virus systems cannot work together as they stops each other. Terrorists may be masked by people opposing ecofagy and try to deploy their own system for combat ecofagy, which will contain a tab that allows it to suddenly be reprogrammed for the hostile goal.
17) The text implicitly suggests that Nanoshield precedes to the invention of self improving AI of superhuman level. However, from other prognosis we know that this event is very likely, and most likely to occur simultaneously with the flourishing of advanced nanotechnology. Thus, it is not clear in what timeframe the project Nanoshield exist. The developed artificial intelligence will be able to create a better Nanoshield and Infoshield, and means to overcome any human shields.
18) We should be aware of equivalence of nanorobots and nanofabrics — first can create second, and vice versa. This erases the border between the replicating and non-replicating nanomachines, because a device not initially intended to replicate itself can construct somehow nanorobot or to reprogram itself into capable for replication nanorobot.

Jan 27, 2009

Finding a Cure for Collective Neurosis in the Attention Economy

Posted by in categories: economics, existential risks, futurism, media & arts

(This essay has been published by the Innovation Journalism Blog — here — Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum — here — and the EJC Magazine of the European Journalism Centre — here)

Thousands of lives were consumed by the November terror attacks in Mumbai.

“Wait a second”, you might be thinking. “The attacks were truly horrific, but all news reports say around two hundred people were killed by the terrorists, so thousands of lives were definitely not consumed.”

You are right. And you are wrong.

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Jan 15, 2009

What should be at the center of the U.S. stimulus package

Posted by in categories: existential risks, geopolitics, habitats, lifeboat, space, sustainability

The projected size of Barack Obama’s “stimulus package” is heading north, from hundreds of billions of dollars into the trillions. And the Obama program comes, of course, on top of the various Bush administration bailouts and commitments, estimated to run as high as $8.5 trillion.

Will this money be put to good use? That’s an important question for the new President, and an even more important question for America. The metric for all government spending ultimately comes down to a single query: What did you get for it?

If such spending was worth it, that’s great. If the country gets victory in war, or victory over economic catastrophe, well, obviously, it was worthwhile. The national interest should never be sacrificed on the altar of a balanced budget.

So let’s hope we get the most value possible for all that money–and all that red ink. Let’s hope we get a more prosperous nation and a cleaner earth. Let’s also hope we get a more secure population and a clear, strategic margin of safety for the United States. Yet how do we do all that?

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Dec 9, 2008

Why antropic principle stops to defend us

Posted by in categories: existential risks, futurism, space

In the volume “Global catastrophic risks” you could find excellent article of Milan Circovic “Observation selection effects and global catastrophic risks”, where he shows that we can’t use information from past records to estimating future rate of global catastrophes.
This has one more consequence which I investigate in my article: “Why antropic principle stops to defend us. Observation selection, future rate of natural disasters and fragility of our environment” — that is we could be in the end of the long period of stability, and some catastrophes may be long overdue and what is most important we could underestimate fragility of our environment which could be on the verge of bifurcation. It is because origination of intellectual life on the Earth is very rare event and it means that some critical parameters may lay near their bounds of stability and small anthropogenic influences could start catastrophic process in this century.…vironment–

Why antropic principle stops to defend us
Observation selection, future rate of natural disasters and fragility of our environment.

Alexei Turchin,
Russian Transhumanist movement

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Nov 26, 2008

What are the Risks of Failure of Nuclear Deterrence?

Posted by in categories: existential risks, geopolitics, nuclear weapons

Nuclear warheads

Martin Hellman is a professor at Stanford, one of the co-inventors of public-key cryptography, and the creator of He has recently published an excellent essay about the risks of failure of nuclear deterrence: Soaring, Cryptography and Nuclear Weapons. (also available on PDF)

I highly recommend that you read it, along with the other resources on, and also subscribe to their newsletter (on the left on the frontpage).

There are also chapters on Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism in Global Catastrophic Risks (intro freely available as PDF here).

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