When The World Didn’t End

15th September 2017

Simon Beard has a feature in the upcoming October 2017 edition of the BBC History Magazine on historical cases in which humanity narrowly avoided a global catastrophe, mainly due to nuclear war.

He also wrote a blog post for our parent organisation, CRAASH – Less Hollywood, More Car Crash: Putting the USA vs. DPRK nuclear stand-off into historical perspective.

“The more I studied these incidents, the more I concluded that we respond to them in the wrong ways. There is a tendency to see each and every case as a terrible mistake, a one-off freak accident that must never be allowed to happen again. However, when you see so many different incidents lined up side by side you realise that this just true. Nuclear near misses are not unconnected moments of madness, they are a systemic feature of our ability to do such massive damage in such a short period of time.”

“So far 4 different attempts have been made to quantify just how low this probability might be. In 2008 Martin Hellman estimated that the annual probability of a ‘Cuban Missile Type Crisis’ producing a nuclear war was 0.02% to 0.5%. Then, in 2013, Anthony Barrett and colleagues at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute estimated the annual probability of a nuclear war between the USA and Russia as being somewhere between 0.001% and 7%. Carl Lundgren has estimated that over the past 66 years we have faced an annual probability of nuclear war that was greater than 1% per year. Finally, in 2015, Dennis and Armstrong surveyed expert opinion to estimate that there is an approximately 0.05% chance per year of a nuclear war that had the potential to cause human extinction. There is a lot of variation and uncertainty here, but given the different approaches and methodologies being used, we can say with some confidence that the probability of a nuclear war starting is likely greater than 0.01% per year, and that it could be considerably higher.

What does this mean? Well let’s assume that if there was an international nuclear war, your chances of being killed would be around 10%. If the annual probability of such a war is 0.01%, this gives you a 1 in 10,000 risk of dying in a nuclear war each year, or a 1 in 125 risk of being killed this way over the course of an 80-year lifespan. That is about as high as your risk of dying in a motoring accident (and incidentally means that, even in a country like the USA, people are more likely to be killed by a nuclear warhead than a firearm).

So, the next time you read about rising tensions between two nuclear armed states, remember that this may be an international car crash in more ways than one and you should probably try to worry about things escalating about as much as you would if you saw somebody driving dangerously. Sadly, such incidents aren’t one off tragedies caused by the unique personalities of those involved, they are a regular fact of life and deserve sustained effort to prevent and avoid. As long as states keep hold of their nuclear weapons, this is how things are likely to remain.”

CSER team away-day

11 July 2017

Research Associate Simon Beard presents to the team.

The CSER team had a team ‘away-day’ on Monday 10th July to reflect on the previous year-and-a-half of operation and plan for the next year-and-a-half. We discussed what we do well and where we can improve; plans for several collaborative, interdisciplinary, papers; how to prioritise between the opportunities we have as a Centre; and what the next ‘phase’ of CSER should look like.


Research Affiliate Martina Kunz makes a point, alongside Catherine Rhodes, Lalitha Sundaram, Julius Weitzdörfer, Yang Liu and Jens Steffensen.

Shahar Avin, Ellen Quigley, Haydn Belfield, Jens Steffensen and Tatsuya Amano listen to Academic Director Huw Price.


The CSER team includes (L-R) Gorm Shackelford, Tatsuya Amano, Adrian Currie, Catherine Rhodes, Yang Liu, Simon Beard, Nikita Chiu, Martin Rees, Lalitha Sundaram, Haydn Belfield, Shahar Avin, Martina Kunz, Julius Weitzdörfer and Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh (to say nothing of the dog).

Report from “Black Sky” Infrastructure and Societal Resilience workshop

11 July 2017

“Our power grids are becoming ever more crucial. Cities will be paralyzed without electricity, and the lights going out will be the least of the consequences… everything else that urban life depends on is vulnerable to breakdowns, errors, or even intentional sabotage of the system.” – Prof Martin Rees

The report from the “Black Sky” Infrastructure and Societal Resilience workshop now available for download.

28 June: Seminar with Seth Baum from GCRI

On June 28, Executive Director Seth Baum from the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute will give a talk on the Institutes’ flagship integrated assessment project, with emphasis on risk from artificial intelligence (AI). Read more here
The seminar will take place from 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm atthe Alison Richard Building (ground floor), 7 West Road,  Cambridge, CB3 9DT United Kingdom

Catherine Rhodes in the Bulletin: “Make the Biological Weapons Convention Work”

CSER’s Catherine Rhodes provides an analysis of the importance of effective implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention in this week’s Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

At their best, international treaties are not static objects. Rather, they are dynamic processes. They productively engage state and non-state actors. They stay relevant to, and actively shape, their “piece” of the world. Achieving a dynamic process is especially important for a treaty’s continued relevance when the treaty addresses or is affected by rapidly advancing science and technology.

Today, the world is witnessing numerous, high-profile developments in the life sciences—Crispr gene editing, gene drive technologies, low-cost sequencing and synthesis, and so forth. These developments often converge, in potentially powerful ways, with developments in other scientific and technological fields. Therefore, the key rules protecting the world against malign applications of developments in the life sciences should be particularly robust and dynamic. It is cause for alarm, then, that last November’s review conference for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention “failed”—and that chances for progress within the convention before 2021 may stall completely in just a few months.”

Read the full article.

CSER Quarterly Report April 2017

Read our Quarterly Report from April 2017 here: CSER Quarterly Report April 2017.

Overview: We’ve had a busy Winter break and Lent term, in which we’ve:

  • Hosted our first conference, the Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk (CCCR), which took place on December 12-14th at Clare College (http://cser.org/cccr2016/).
  • Organised a series of workshops on artificial intelligence risk scenarios, biorisks, geoengineering, and decision theory. These workshops have played important roles in both advancing our research projects, and in establishing strong links to relevant research and policy communities. The February AI and March ‘extreme biorisk’ workshop in particular allowed us to explore and identify research priorities in global-scale biorisk (natural and engineered).
  • Co-organised the Darwin “Extremes” lecture series (organised by CSER’s Julius Weitzdörfer) and a public lecture on climate change and existential risk (Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan).
  • Been featured extensively in the media, including on the front page of Wired UK.
  • Published and submitted a number of papers as our research projects begin to bear fruit. This includes papers on geoengineering, on problems with current scientific structures, on biosecurity, on classifying global catastrophic risks, and several papers on decision theory.
  • Made a new appointment to our team: Haydn Belfield (Academic Project Manager).
  • Prepared to move office.
  • Advanced research on our main project, Managing Extreme Technological Risks, and given talks on our research at a range of conferences and events in and outside Cambridge.
  • Received a grant to expand our work on bio-risk and regulation, governance and responsible innovation in biotechnology.

CSER at Catastrophic And Existential Risk Colloquium

The UCLA’s Garrick Institute held its first colloquium on Catastrophic And Existential Risk from March 27-29, with the opening keynote being delivered by CSER’s Executive Director Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, and a lecture being given by CSER’s Catherine Rhodes. Ó hÉigeartaigh gave an overview of recent global progress in the field of existential risk, and presented some of the challenges for traditional risk analysis posed by risks of global catastrophic magnitude. Dr Rhodes spoke on risk management in systems of international governance, in particular outlining challenges associate with the governance of biological weapons. CSER adviser Professor Jonathan Wiener also spoke on psychological, political and policy challenges associated with rare or unprecedented risks of global catastrophic scale.

The Colloquium represented a welcome coming-together of communities doing leading work on quantitative risk assessment across risks of different scales, leaders in global risk areas such as nuclear war and bioterrorism, and the growing community of academic and research specialists in global catastrophic and existential risk as a class of risk. Alongside CSER, Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, the Foresight Institute, and the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute were also represented We thank the Garrick Institute for organising and leading on the colloquium. A report or edited volume may be produced on the basis of the talks and workshop sessions.

New Research Affiliates

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is happy to welcome six new Research Affiliates. This affiliation recognises the contribution they have made to the success of the Centre. We are proud to have them onboard!

Research Affiliates

Seth Baum
Research Affiliate

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Martina Kunz
Research Affiliate

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Ryan Carey
Research Affiliate

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William MacAskill
Research Affiliate

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Nikita Chiu
Research Affiliate

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Ellen Quigley
Research Affiliate

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Dr Simon Beard – a New Generation Thinker

On the 16th of March 2017 the AHRC and BBC Radio 3 announced the ten academics at the start of their career whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC – the New Generation Thinkers.

CSER is proud to announce that Dr Simon Beard, one of our philosophers, has been selected to participate among hundreds of applications from early career academics. The final 10 ‘New Generation Thinkers’ were selected following a four-month process involving a series of day-long workshops at the BBC in Salford and London.

Prof Andrew Thompson, Chief Executive of the AHRC, says:” This scheme is all about helping the next generation of academics to find new and wider audiences for the research by giving them a platform to share ideas and allowing them to have the space to challenge our thinking. More than ever we need the new insights and knowledge that come from arts and humanities researchers to help us to navigate through the complexities of our globalized world and address the moral and ethical challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Dr Simon Beard will explore the ethical challenge of ensuring the long-term future of humanity. He has written on topics including population ethics, disability rights, assisted dying, imprisoned mothers, equal marriage, global justice and the meaning of life. He is currently fascinated by the question of when does morality require us to act straight away and when are we justified in waiting until tomorrow.

Read the full press release from BBC