Existential threats

Not sure why but lately I have been hearing a lot about existential events. These are events that threaten the existence of humanity itself.

Massive Solar Storm

A couple of days ago I read about the Carrington Event which was a massive geomagnetic solar storm in 1859. Apparently it wreaked havoc with the communications infrastructure of the time (telegraphs). Researchers have apparently been able to discover other similar events in earth’s history by analyzing ice cores from Greenland which indicate that events of this magnitude occur once every 500 years and smaller events typically occur multiple times/century.

Unclear to me what a solar storm of the magnitude of the Carrington Event would do to the world as we know it today, but we are much more dependent on electronic communications, radio, electronic power, etc. If such an event were to take out, 50% of our electro-magnetic infrastructure, such as frying power transformers, radio transceivers, magnetic storage/motors/turbines, etc. civilization as we know it would be brought back to the mid 1800’s but with a 21st century population.

This would last until we could rebuild all the lost infrastructure, at tremendous cost. During this time we would be dependent on animal-human-water power, paper-optical based communications/storage, and animal-wind transport.

It appears that any optical based communication/computer systems would remain intact but powering them would be problematic without working transformers and generators.

One article (couldn’t locate this) stated that the odds of another Carrington Event happening is 12%  by 2022. But the ice core research seems to indicate that it should be higher than this. By my reckoning, it’s been 155 years since the last event, which means we are ~1/3rd of the way through the next 500 years, so I would expect the probability of a similar event happening to be ~1/3 at this point and rising slightly every year until it happens again.


I picked up a book called Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strengths by Nick Bostrom last week and started reading it last night. It’s about the dangers of AI gaining the ability to improve itself and after that becoming not just equivalent to Human Level Intelligence (HMLI) but greatly exceeding HMLI at a super-HMLI level (Superintelligent). This means some Superintelligent entity that would have more intelligence than our current population of humans today, by many orders of magnitude.

Bostrom discusses the take off processes that would lead to Superintelligence and some of the ways we could hope to control it. But his belief is that trying to install any of these controls after it has reached HMLI would be fruitless.

I haven’t finished the book but what I have read so far, has certainly scared me.

Bostrom presents three scenarios for a Superintelligence take off: slow take off, fast take off and medium take off. He believes that in a slow take off scenario there may be many opportunities to control the emerging Superintelligence. In a moderate or medium take off, we would know that something is wrong but would have only some limited opportunity to control it. In the fast take off (literally 18months from HMLI to Superintelligence in one scenario Bostrom presents), the likelihood of controlling it after it starts are non-existent.

The later half of Bostrom’s book discusses potential control mechanisms and other ways to moderate the impacts of superintelligence.  So far I don’t see much hope for mankind in the controls he has proposed. But l am only half way through the book and hope to see more substantial mechanisms in the 2nd half.

In the end, any Superintelligence could substantially alter the resources of the world and the impact this would have on humanity is essentially unpredictable. But by looking at recent history, one can see how other species have faired as humanity has altered the resources of the earth. Humanity’s rise has led to massive species die offs, for any species that happened to lie in the way of human progress.

The first part of Bostrom’s book discusses some estimates as to when the world will reach AI with HMLI. Most experts believe that we will see HMLI like this with a 90% probability by the year 2075 and a 50% probability by the year 2050. As for the duration of take off to superintelligence ,the expert opinions are mixed and he believes that they highly underestimate the speed of take off.

Humanity’s risks

The search for extra-terristial intelligence has so far found nothing. One of the parameters for the odds of a successful search was the number of inhabitable planets in the universe. But the another parameter is the ability of a technological civilization to survive long enough to be noticed – the likelihood of a civilization to survive any existential risk that comes up.

Superintelligence and massive solar storms represent just two such risks but there are a multitude of others that can be identified today, and tomorrow’s technological advances will no doubt give rise to more.

Existential risks like these are ever-present and appear to be growing as our technolgical prowess grows. My only problem is that today the study of existential risks seem at best, ad hoc today and at worst, outright disregard.

I believe the best policy is to recognize known existential risks, have some intelligent debate on how probably they are and how we could potentially check them. There really needs to be some systematic study of existential risks around the world bringing academics and technologists together to understand and to mitigate them. The threats to humanity are real, we can continue to ignore them, study a few that gain human interest, or actively seek out and mitigate all of them we can.


Photo Credit(s): C3-class Solar Flare Erupts on Sept. 8, 2010 [Detail] by NASA Goddard’s space flight center photo stream