Patterico's Pontifications


Nick Bostrom on Existential Risk

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 7:59 am

The latest Sam Harris podcast is a conversation with Nick Bostrom about existential risk:

These are the big issues confronting the human race. I’m reading a great book about the Chernobyl disaster: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higganbotham. Not limited to an incredibly detailed discussion about Chernobyl, the book also discusses previous Russian nuclear accidents (turns out their reputation for safety was a Soviet myth; go figure.) It’s similar in size, scope, and detail to Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser — a book I’m pretty sure I have mentioned before. The latter book, although ostensibly about a single nuclear weapons accident in Arkansas in the 1980s, contained an encyclopedic categorization of America’s history of nuclear accidents. Among the more salient existential risks to the planet and to our species is the existence of nuclear weapons and the potential damage from accidents involving them. The safety of nuclear reactors, touted by many as bulleproof, is only as reliable as the flawed humans that operate them. Chernobyl easily could have rendered large portions of Europe uninhabitable for a thousand years, if things had gone just a litle differently.

Oh, and then there’s this:

Of the two things I just mentioned — the existential risk of nuclear technology and a super-dopey Donald Trump tweet — which do you think people care about more?

That’s a big part of the problem.

[Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.]

72 Responses to “Nick Bostrom on Existential Risk”

  1. Public focus is driven by the popular media.

    The public focuses-on what the popular media decides they want the public to focus on by keeping stories in the public eye despite the public-at-large ignoring them. Example: The various and sundry members of the Kardashian cabal.

    In this instance, the popular media focuses on a minor personal dispute between two narcissistic personalities over the much more important issues of the hour, day, week, month, etc.

    Personally, I don’t care much what Donald Trump says…I prefer results…and he seems to be delivering for the Country overall.

    MJN1957 (6f981a)

  2. Of the two things I just mentioned

    Sadly, I think the two are related

    Nathan (5efffe)

  3. well one was a design flaw, as with the software on the boeing 737 max, the other was more a procedural thing, of course, mr. Conway is allowed to scream like a rabid wombat, the same is apparently true of Lawrence tribe, but his craziness is also accepted, of course the supreme court decision might have been of note,

    narciso (d1f714)

  4. this was their alamagordo:

    of course the soviet failures in aerospace, were epic, the energia booster grounded their manned lunar program,

    narciso (d1f714)

  5. I never heard that the Soviets had a reputation for safety, even when the official Soviet propaganda machine was going full blast.
    If anything it was the reverse and we had the reputation…

    Kishnevi (840999)

  6. Patterico,

    There is a great podcast from one of the How Stuff Works gents on existential threats. The guy co-hosts a regular podcast called Stuff You Should Know which is awesome, but this is a short (10 part) series called the “End of the World with Josh Clark.” Highly recommend giving it a listen if you are interested in existential risk.

    Ryan (57c854)

  7. Existential risk. So the Hodja is crossing the Red Sea on a dhow, and the ship runs into rough seas with high waves that threaten to sink it. The other passengers are weeping and wailing and praying for deliverance. The Hodja remains calm and collected. The seas subside, the sun comes out, and the ship makes it safely to harbor. As the passengers disembark, one of them turns to the Hodja and asks: “How could you remain so calm? Don’t you know that the only thing between us and death was one thin plank of wood?” The Hodja replied: “And don’t you know that for most of our lives we don’t even have that one thin plank?”

    nk (dbc370)

  8. Trump believes he can convince Kim to abandon his interests and, worse yet, other countries worry Trump may lift sanctions in exchange for Kim’s promise:

    One fear, said one foreign official familiar with U.S. diplomacy on the issue who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, is that while Trump did not strike a deal with Kim at their recent summit in Hanoi, he still might agree to one now. The official fears Trump might lift some or all the economic sanctions on Pyongyang in exchange for a North Korean pledge to continue a freeze on development and testing of new missiles and warheads and halt efforts to develop a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile and reentry vehicle capable of striking targets in the U.S.

    Maybe this is why George Conway is to worried about Trump.

    DRJ (d18ca6)

  9. Trump has had no good results when it comes to the Korea threat.

    DRJ (d18ca6)

  10. To be fair to Trump, no one has had good results when it comes to Korea.

    Kishnevi (840999)

  11. well they weren’t particular fair to Reagan either,

    narciso (d1f714)

  12. When we nuke ’em, the North Koreans, the world will not say that Trump didn’t try.

    nk (dbc370)

  13. What I;m worried about is not nuclear plant accidents – which ios pretty much taken care o – and tend to happen during tests – I don’t like the idea of decomissiining any of them – i’s as safe as open heart surgery and for the same reason.

    What I worry about is that nuclear deterrence may disappear. That somebody is going to try to prove it a bluff. That proving it a bluff is part of the foreogn policy of China. That as time goes on, people in some foreogn militaries may forget what was the reason they were never used. Like Germany forgot in 1914 why they withdrew from France in 1871 even after defeating it. (England and The USA spoke the same language)

    Sammy Finkelman (102c75)

  14. The Begin precedent is actually agood one.

    Sammy Finkelman (102c75)

  15. Trump stopped large-scale exercises in the region without getting anything in return, kishnevi. I think that was reckless and should count against him and his judgment.

    DRJ (d18ca6)

  16. And it suggests to me that Trump may limit sanctions, too.

    DRJ (d18ca6)

  17. To be fair to Trump, no one has had good results when it comes to Korea.

    But Trump has told us repeatedly that what is difficult or impossible for everyone else will be easy for him. He claims to have done various things that no one else has managed before. His excessive assurance of his own superiority should be a matter of concern.

    There are also various indications that he cares more about getting credit than about getting results for anyone else. Most strikingly, there was the time he went to a charity event and commandeered a seat that had been reserved for a major donor to the charity — after giving nothing himself. He took public credit he hadn’t earned, and denied it to someone who had. The organizers were too cowed by his chutzpah and clout to do anything about it.

    Trump openly measures good and bad in terms of what serves his ego. It’s sad to see most of what used to be conservatism now defined in terms of pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump, or not sufficiently unconditional in praise of Trump.

    Radegunda (694c3c)

  18. Part of the reason the tweets bother me is that they signal that their author is someone with whom it is unsafe to entrust the handling of existential risks.

    aphrael (3f0569)

  19. Patterico, I have learned a lot from the Sam Harris podcasts. I don’t always agree with him, but I applaud his willingness to listen to everyone.

    Simon Jester (e22de1)

  20. @AndrewPollackFL
    -The economy is booming
    -Trade deals are being written
    -Unemployment is down
    -Obama’s dangerous school leniency policies were ended
    -Iran deal squashed
    -Moved the embassy to Jerusalem
    -ISIS is near total destruction…

    And people still think President Trump is unfit to serve

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  21. @17 You can replace Trump with Obama for most of your comment and it’s still correct. During Obama’s term there wasn’t much of a public split in the D party only because sufficiently unconditional praise was rigorously enforced.

    I don’t think Trump is the singular danger to all humanity that he gets accused of being. So far, he looks much safer than any of the 2020 D candidates.

    frosty48 (5afd97)

  22. On the plus side, we get to read Allahpundit’s hilarious take on Presidential stupidity, as well as commenters across the internet telling us they don’t think Trump will destroy civilization. So we have that going for us.

    DRJ (d18ca6)

  23. Then you can read Ace’s deeply odd attempt to be a bully. Honestly, is everyone he disagrees with overweight? I think he is projecting.

    Proof of what I have long feared: Trump drives everyone insane.

    Simon Jester (e22de1)

  24. “There are also various indications that he cares more about getting credit than about getting results for anyone else.”

    In category of “there’s a Trump tweet for everything”:

    Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news – it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!

    Davethulhu (fab944)

  25. Walcott has been slagging every Republican back to Reagan, probably because we werent surrendering to Hezbollah enough.

    Narciso (d573e4)

  26. I do recall that was speculation when the result was much more quotidian

    Narciso (d573e4)

  27. I’m not sure which Ace post you mean, Simon. I just looked there for the first time in months and there are some strange ideas over there.

    DRJ (d18ca6)

  28. Pointing out that the dossier isn’t worth the toilet paper it was printed on, is indeed strange nor its silicon valley enablers or any if that sort.

    Narciso (d573e4)

  29. William Kristol and his band of merry men are indeed strange, yes.

    Something to think about…

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  30. DRJ, I don’t know Ace. And some of his cobloggers write interesting things.

    I have just noticed that every time Ace doesn’t like a person, out comes the term “cuck” quickly followed by crude insults about appearance and weight. I sure hope he is slim and good looking.

    Regardless, I smell “bully” from him. It’s too bad.

    Simon Jester (e22de1)

  31. Yep, Simon, that “cuck” thing is obnoxious.

    His post this morning, though, highlights the wankery associated with the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, the Bulwort, etc., around Jeff Bezos late-adolescent hijinks.

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  32. when the methane gas frozen at the bottom of the oceans begins to thaw and bubble to the surface these other problems will seem trivial. you better hope a republican is president otherwise its post natal abortion time for conservatives to start with.

    lany (5dd43a)

  33. 22 You can replace Trump with Obama for most of your comment and it’s still correct.

    And lots of the people who deplored Obama’s narcissism and the cultlike adoration of him are now proud to profess their unconditional devotion to Donald Trump, and they’re not the least bit bothered by his even more overt self-worship, and his more blatantly self-centered view of right and wrong.

    “But Obama …” doesn’t go very far as an argument. Invoking the sins of Obama, or the horribleness of Hillary Clinton, does not justify the invective hurled at anyone who dares suggest that Trump has said or done something wrong.
    It’s always a bad idea to try to shield those in power from criticism. It’s especially a bad idea when the person in power is so openly, unabashedly self-serving and self-centered.

    Radegunda (694c3c)

  34. Suspect there is method to the ‘super-dopey’ madness. It’s out of character for Trump to tolerate this sort of public insubordination from inner circle wankers. Believe the Conways are in cahoots and w/Trump, who is in on the “good cop/bad cop” strategy behind the husband/wife routine — encouraging the skeet-shooting of meaningless competence tweets for him to take twitter aim at — and shoot attention away from something else. It’s clever. And it works.

    So does throwing shade at a dead senator sparking attention-getting heat and a little diversionary light for a few news cycles. Our Captain knows how to steer The Beast his way 24/7.

    Duck-and-cover drills as well as backyard bomb shelters are quaint, mania memories from Cold War times while these days defunct Yankee-Doodle-missile-silos have been turned into chic, pricey condos. Haven’t worried ’bout a nuclear exchange since October, 1962– and slept well for decades.

    Accidents -civilian and military- are another issue. The Arkansas incident, essentially ignited by a dropped wrench socket dinging a leak into the side of a liquid-fueled Titan II missile [now obsolete and OOS] is the sort of human error to stir deep concern and rightly rec’d a lot of media attention- [excellent PBS TV doc done on it BTW]. And it’s fodder for glowing entertainment- ‘Destination Moon’ ‘Fail-Safe’ ‘Dr. Strangelove’ ‘Bedford Incident’ ‘China Syndrome’ ‘Thirteen Days’ as well as a core element for so many ‘Bond’ flicks, etc. But there have been other equally dangerous, less publicized incidents from earlier times, when safeguards were less sophisticated; goofs known now which would have scared the hell out you if more detailed then:

    ‘Since 1950, there have been 32 nuclear weapon accidents…’

    Developing these gadgets is expensive, messy and they’re a costly, PITA to manage. They’ve become a bargaining chip. Don’t believe NorKo will ever use ’em; but they would barter or sell ’em given their circumstances. If you were them in their situation, you would. OTOH, you can’t cry for a nuke free Middle East; Israel’s got ’em so it’s understandable why others in the region who don’t, want ’em too. And don’t forget the expensive subs- American, Russian and who-knows-who-else, cruising beneath the planet’s oceans, mostly atomic-powered and loaded w/nuclear missiles and torpedoes. Thoughts of a dirty bomb in the hands of some nutty professor could run picnics in Central Park for a century or three, too.

    We effort to minimize human error in operation and design of both weapon delivery systems and power facilities but accidents do and will happen. The uncontrollable variable appears to be natural disasters -and the rising awareness of climate change only adds to it. For instance, constructing subways and nuclear power plants in quake-prone zones like CA and Japan seems incredibly poor planning.

    And, of course, there’s the dirt dealing w/storing nuclear waste. It’s literally a radioactive NIMB topic. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukisami certainly signal issues w/t limits of design and human error. But not to lose sleep over, as in October, 1962. Along w/solar and wind, there’s great potential to meet the energy needs of a planet w/10 billion people. And one day, nukes may very well help save us from the next, inevitable killer asteroid– or maybe that’s just sci-fi movie stuff- like a moonshot.

    “The moon? Impossible!” – Jim Barnes [John Archer] ‘Destination Moon’ 1950

    DCSCA (797bc0)

  35. Ace was always ready to ridicule, in semi-obscene ways, anyone he disagreed with or anything he disapproved of. But the quality of his ridicule seems to have declined, and he merely repeats the usual ideas lobbed about by Team Trump.

    Kishnevi (5ab2cd)

  36. @36. ^NIMBY

    DCSCA (797bc0)

  37. DCSCA, to us somewhat youngins, the concluding passage of your post at #36 is also the “we’ll all have high schools named after us” suicide mission with the spacecrafts nuclear device into the comet move from Deep Impact (1998)

    urbanleftbehind (cc3dfe)

  38. @39. LOL, well, there’s that, too. Perhaps libraries, too.

    DCSCA (797bc0)

  39. I don’t know about the real Ace. I thought he was interesting and often funny years ago but he seems very different now. Like this:

    Is This a Theory That Works?

    91 Social media makes money off of data collection of the user. Shadow banning would be fraud. They collect data and profits while denying you their service while claiming that they are.
    Posted by: literally serious

    If they’re taking what they want from you (data, eyes for its sponsored posts) and not giving you what they’ve promised in return (publicly communicating with the world) — that is either fraud or breach of contract or both.

    Posted by Ace of Spades at 07:01 PM Comments

    DRJ (15874d)

  40. the last few offerings were a little hit and miss:

    narciso (d1f714)

  41. (Big) Data mining is definitely a big thing and very profitable for those that sell it and those that buy it and put it to use. But there may be a tacit agreement/understanding that it’s part of the transaction when one uses the social media platform.

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  42. After reading Allahpundit’s take on the Conway marriage fiasco, I still don’t know if they’re in on it together or it’s a publicity stunt to divert attention from Trump or Mueller or whatever.
    What I am absolutely clear about, however, is that these two morons have 4 children together, and they clearly don’t give a crap about them or the embarrassment and humiliation they will have to endure because of the selfish, idiots they have for parents. They need to swallow a heaping spoonful of STFU and consider the very real risk of hurting and alienating their children to score cheap political points. Shame on both of them.

    Dana (023079)

  43. One wonders if there are parallels of the Pg-13 sort between George Conway and the William H. Macy character from Boogie Nights.

    urbanleftbehind (cc3dfe)

  44. The last link is the athenians hardy boys (Niko’s Socrates bros which sort of makes diotima Nancy drew, each volume comes closer to the cataclysm

    Narciso (685b81)

  45. I remember a co-worker who had emigrated from Russia telling me that even after they knew how dangerous the situation was at the Chernobyl powerplant, the local TV stations played continuous classical music.

    harkin (09d352)

  46. 46. I’m really beginning to believe that narcissism is a requirement for political involvement.

    Gryph (08c844)

  47. The media seems to be doing their best to keep the focus on Trump, and keep people distracted. Trump’s character and flawed personality are feeding this… which all work to keep the focus off the Democrat party… what they’ve become… the insane actions they’ve taken. Some in the past have talked of an alliance of socialists, Islamists and anarchists that will work together to bring this nation to its knees. Doesn’t seem so far fetched now.

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  48. The press is on the side of the marxists anarchists and Islamists, sometimes at the same time, this is they twist themselves in limbo re Omar, who is one of erdogans enablers along with the vekakte Washington post.

    Narciso (685b81)

  49. That’s why I found yashar Ali being cited as an authority very ironic.

    Narciso (685b81)

  50. How many people died as a result of Chernobyl?

    How many died as a result of mining the quantity of coal needed to produce an equivalent amount of energy to the Chernobyl power plant?

    There is no such thing as safety. There is only relative safety.

    Having said that,
    i’ll try to find the Higginbotham book you’re talking about so I can have a better informed opinion.

    vincent (da6183)

  51. I’m really not happy with nuclear reactors in general. We don’t really know what to do with them other than start them up and then drain the power off. There are too many ways for things to go wrong, it’s too hard to deal with the waste, and once something does go wrong we don’t have a good way to stop it or to stop the health crisis that a nuclear event would cause. In the 50s my grandfather died of radiation poisoning that no one knew he would get (and no one would really tell my grandmother how he got) and, yes, we know more now, but they still wouldn’t be able to stop him from dying.

    Nic (896fdf)

  52. Was he exposed in a nuclear test, they were a little cavalier back then.

    Narciso (685b81)

  53. It was still classified last time anyone asked. They maintained it was something that happened in Korea, however his last tour before Korea was in a base quite quite close to Laurence Livermore. So. You know.

    Nic (896fdf)

  54. 51 – Col.
    Things look bleak.

    mg (8cbc69)

  55. 56… yes, a little. My father worked for a construction company in SW Utah in the early to mid ‘50s, laying asphalt and building highways. He told me of working and feeling minor shockwaves and seeing the sky light up on the other side of a mountain range when the blasts occurred. I don’t recall if he’d ever worked on the other side of the range where he might’ve been able to see the mushroom clouds.

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  56. 58… yes, they do. And yet look what receives the outrage, derision and condemnation.

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  57. Nuclear devices are very specialized Instruments and should be handled carefully I dont think that’s rca legacy heir schlosser point though

    Narciso (685b81)

  58. Pick up yer stick, Donald,
    Pu’ on yer bonnet —
    The North Road’s a lang ane
    Wi’ queer cattle on it.
    “You’re either the laird or no’ the laird.”

    (Read it in some book.)

    nk (dbc370)

  59. SABO/2020

    mg (8cbc69)

  60. The French supply about 75% of their electricity needs from nuclear sources….including nearly 20% from recycled nuclear waste. They are aiming to reduce it to 50% because of safety concerns (aging plants, terrorism, natural disasters, etc.). The French do have very low energy costs and very low CO2 emissions.

    The world has had three nuclear power plant accidents (plus a handful of military and research core accidents): Three Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl, and Fukushima….with only Chernobyl causing loss of life….should Soviet-bloc-era power plant design drive this issue? I kind of think no. Nuclear power plants cannot explode like nuclear bombs. Even the triple meltdown at Fukushima caused no fatalities…or serious radiation doses to anyone….including the several hundred who continued to work at the site to mitigate the plant damage effects. The feared “China Syndrome” of TMI….that the core would melt through the earth all the way to China….got exactly 15mm towards China before freezing to the bottom of the pressure vessel (wow, that was close!).

    We need energy. In the future we will need more electrical energy…especially if society continues to transition from internal combustion engines to electric cars…which will need to be charged from the grid. What is the solution? We will need some jumps in technology. Nuclear could give us time to achieve those innovations (H2, flow batteries, etc.). We certainly can continue to burn more coal and natural gas….and integrate more wind and PV as cost permits…but there is value in reducing CO2 emissions beyond climate change concerns (real or exaggerated). Yes there is risk with nuclear…but I wonder if we are accurately capturing it with regards to reality…

    AJ_Liberty (165d19)

  61. But the planners don’t want you to have energy or a car or a cow,

    Narciso (27a49a)

  62. Back in the 80s, reagans introduction of perishing missiles would be the provocation (that was the subtext of the day after) which was the driver behind the nuclear freeze. Surrender by another means and all the intelligentsia of the era swore by it.

    Narciso (27a49a)

  63. To make another they live reference, trump is rowdy pipers character, hes a blunt object, but that’s what’s required in these times.

    Narciso (27a49a)

  64. “I sure hope he is slim and good looking.”
    Simon Jester @12:39

    I can personally relate he isn’t particularly slim or good-looking. I was at a Moron Meetup a few years ago, and sat directly across the table from him.

    I gave up on his site when he started in calling Never Trumpers traitors back before the election.

    Bill H (383c5d)

  65. Davethulhu @25. Trump: Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news – it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record! This is worldwide, but limited to commercial flights on planes licensed to carry at least 14 people.

    Sammy Finkelman (e70ce9)

  66. The safety of nuclear reactors, touted by many as bulletproof, is only as reliable as the flawed humans that operate them. Chernobyl easily could have rendered large portions of Europe uninhabitable for a thousand years, if things had gone just a little differently.

    Oh, hogwash.

    1) The only western accidents have been with Mark 1 reactors, built to a design that was obsolete 30 years ago, if not longer. The Japanese disaster was due to running a plant years past its decommissioning date, not letting the engineers vent gas when they still could, and having critical cooling equipment out in the fracking open for a tidal wave to smash.

    Three Mile Island — the worst US commercial “disaster” killed no one, damaged no land, and mostly just gave PR to a scaremongering movie.

    Of course, if you mean “operate” you mean the lawyers and PR flacks that are in charge of the people who actually know what they are doing, then maybe, yeah. But then you should ban petroleum refineries, too.

    2) Yeah, the Soviets had lots of problems. But that was a society where you solve problems by shooting everyone who knows about them. Better answer: don’t have societies like that.

    I know it can be hard for someone trained in law — where spin and attitude wins the day and anything can be appealed — but engineering isn’t about spin and there is no appeal.

    It’s about results. And the results are clear: nuclear weapons do NOT go off by accident. Nuclear reactors basically work unless you go out of your way entirely to frack it up, as they did in Japan and Chernobyl (TMI failed safely). Chernobyl was particularly bad — a history of commissars saying “DO IT!” and engineers saying “NO GOD PLEASE DON’T!” until it broke.

    Kevin M (21ca15)

  67. the new party is pronuclear and anti skydragon fantasies (AGW)

    narciso (d1f714)

  68. For those concerned about existential, Rhode Island.

    Paul Montagu (d49d0a)

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