Partnership on AI

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk strongly welcomes the recently announced partnership on AI to benefit people and society (current partners: DeepMind/Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM). Increasingly powerful AI systems are becoming used in an ever-wider range of real-world settings. This offers wonderful opportunities for helping us with many global challenges – for example, DeepMind have recently developed tools to aid doctors in the NHS, and massively improved the energy efficiency of Google’s servers with a version of DQN (the Atari-beating algorithm), which has very beneficial implications for climate change. Similarly, Microsoft Research are making great progress on applying AI to cancer diagnosis and prevention.

However, the widespread use and further development of these systems will also throw up challenges – including fairness and potential biases in algorithms or the data they generate their results from; our ability to understand how these algorithms function and the settings in which they may not perform as well, and the impact of AI on job markets. In the longer-term, AI is set to be such a transformative technology that it is prudent to think carefully about its safe development, the potential impacts and risks of long-term advances, and the global challenges to which it can be applied beneficially. These challenges will require deep interdisciplinary and cross-sector collaboration between technology research leaders, scholars across disciplines, and policymakers who seek to stay up to date with a rapidly progressing technology. Cambridge is taking a leading role in these discussions; in addition to CSER’s work, research leaders in Cambridge’s machine learning department have been organising workshops at the major machine learning conferences on the societal impacts of AI , legal and policy challenges that AI will present, and the technical design of AI systems so as to be reliable ‘in the wild’. Cambridge has also  recently partnered with Oxford, Berkeley and Imperial on a new centre to study the long-term opportunities and challenges of AI, supported by the Leverhulme Foundation – the Centre for the Future of Intelligence.

The research leaders in companies such as DeepMind, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are among the best placed to think in a long-term manner about these issues, in their deep understanding of the current state of the art, their unique insights into where the field will be in ten years’ time, and the ways in which their advances will change the world. They also have a unique opportunity to play a guiding role, in collaboration with others. This partnership is a tremendously positive step, and demonstrates laudable responsibility and leadership from the companies involved. We strongly welcome it, and look forward to opportunities to collaborate on many of the research issues the Partnership highlights.

Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh,

Executive Director, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk

Blavatnik Public Lecture by Dr David Denkenberger on Feeding Everyone No Matter What – Room Change

CSER is pleased to welcome Dr David Denkenberger for this Blavatnik Public Lecture. Due to the change to a bigger room, more spaces are now available.
2 September 2016, 14:00 – 15:30
Room 1.25, David Attenborough Building, Pembroke Street, Cambridge CB2 3QZ

Free to attend, but please register.


A large asteroid or comet impact, super volcanic eruption, or full-scale nuclear war could cause a ~100% global agricultural shortfall. Together these have a probability ~10% this century. We have proposed solutions that could feed everyone without the sun, such as growing mushrooms on dead trees. Abrupt climate change, coincident extreme weather, a volcanic eruption like that which caused the year without a summer in 1816, regional nuclear war, complete loss of bees, and medium-sized comet/asteroid could cause a ~10% global agricultural shortfall. Together these have a probability ~80% this century.

We have proposed solutions that would mitigate the food price rise, such as relocating animals to the farm fields so they can consume agricultural residues. A number of risks could cause widespread electrical failure, including a series of high-altitude electromagnetic pulses (HEMPs) caused by nuclear weapons, an extreme solar storm, and a coordinated cyber attack. Since modern industry depends on electricity, it is likely there would be a collapse of the functioning of industry and machines in these scenarios. We have proposed solutions for food (e.g. burning wood from landfills for fertilizer) and nonfood (such as retrofitting ships to be wind powered) requirements of everyone. These alternate food solutions require only low-cost preparation research and planning (unlike storing food), and therefore are cost-effective ways of saving expected lives and reducing the chance of loss of civilization, from which humanity may not recover.

Speaker Biography:

Dr. David Denkenberger received his B.S. from Penn State in Engineering Science, his M.S.E. from Princeton in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the Building Systems Program. His dissertation was on his patent-pending expanded microchannel heat exchanger. He is an assistant professor at Tennessee State University in architectural engineering. He is also an associate at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. He received the National Merit Scholarship, the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and is a Penn State distinguished alumnus. He has authored or co-authored over 50 publications, including the book Feeding Everyone no Matter What: Managing Food Security after Global Catastrophe. He has given over 80 technical presentations.

CSER Lent Newsletter 2016

CSER had another busy term. We now have a growing team of brilliant postdoctoral researchers from across a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including governance, law, biotechnology, mathematics, philosophy, physics and ecology, and are establishing collaborations within and outside Cambridge on our key risk areas. The team is already hard at work on high-impact research projects, workshops, public lectures and seminars, and it promises to be a tremendous year. To read our latest newsletter click here.
To get regular updates about our work, please sign up to our newsletter.

Partha Dasgupta Awarded Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement

We are delighted to report that Partha Dasgupta, Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge, and Chair of CSER’s Management Committee and an intellectual lead within its projects, is this year’s recipient of the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (

The award is in recognition of his contributions to the field of environmental economics, and particularly his “pioneering work… in establishing new paradigms at the nexus of society and sustainable development, and his continuing commitment to problems of population and poverty, loss of biodiversity and conservation” (

CSER is co-organising: FUKUSHIMA – Five Years On

The 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Accident constitutes a technological accident, a humanitarian disaster, and the largest civil liability case in legal history. In light of a recent nuclear renaissance, ambitious energy transitions, and aiming to identify concrete policy recommendations regarding the prevention, mitigation, and compensation of future accidents, this international workshop critically addresses the legal challenges and necessary policy lessons from Fukushima. It will be the first to cover all three legal dimensions of the disaster – in public, private, and criminal law – and will comprise contributions by international experts pioneering their fields, including the regulation of risk, crisis management, nuclear safety, disaster resilience, environmental and energy law, and dispute resolution for victims. Further contributions will treat recent developments in Japan, such as the first judgments awarding compensation for the death of evacuees by suicide and the criminal trial against TEPCO executives for negligent manslaughter.

This two-day international workshop MUST be booked for EITHER or BOTH of the days:

  • Friday, 4 March evening KEYNOTE: Nuclear Power and the Mob: Extortion and Social Capital in Japan
  • Saturday, 5 March WORKSHOP: Fukushima Five Years on – Legal Fallout in Japan, Lessons for the EU

Registration via Eventbrite

Event details:



Friday, 4 March 2016 at 17:30 – Saturday, 5 March 2016 at 18:15 (GMT)


Darwin College – Silver Street Cambridge, England CB3 9EU GB

A distraction or an essential discussion? Confronting extreme environmental risks.

An expert panel will explore different perspectives on risk in the face of uncertainties, unknowns, and the possibilities of extreme outcomes. This event is being co-hosted by the Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment (CFSE) and the Centre for Existential Risk (CSER). Click here for more information.

Monday 7 March: 7:30pm – 8:30pm

Mill Lane Lecture Rooms , 8 Mill Lane, CB2 1RW

Blavatnik Public Lecture Series – Prof. Charles Kennel and Prof. Stephen Briggs

Date: 26 February

Time: 16:00-18:00

Location: Seminar room, 1st floor, David Attenborough Building, Cambridge.

Lecture Title: Planetary Vital Signs, Planetary Decisions, Planetary Intelligence.

Book your ticket


Doesn’t the world need to look beyond global temperature to a set of planetary vital signs? When all indicators of change are fragile, you should not rely on one; you risk over-focusing policy on it.  You look at a number different of ones and ask whether they all point in the same general direction.  You look at the balance of evidence.

A coalition of scientists and policy makers should start work at once, since some vital signs should be ready at the entry into force of the Paris Agreement in 2020 or it will be hard to infuse any into policy processes later.

But vital signs are only the beginning.  They are not indicators of risk to the things  people care about.  And the world needs to learn how to use the vast knowledge we will be acquiring about climate change and its impacts.

Is it possible to use the tools at hand- observations from space and ground networks; demographic, economic and societal measures; big data statistical techniques; and numerical models-to inform politicians, managers, and the public of the evolving risks of climate change at global, regional, and local scales?

Should we not think in advance of an always-on social and information network that provides decision-ready knowledge to those who hold the responsibility to act, wherever they are, at times of their choosing?  Shouldn’t we prepare the social infrastructure-policies, governance, institutions, financing- needed to knit climate knowledge and action together?

Professor Kennel will be joined by Professor Stephen Briggs who will talk about planetary vital signs.

About the speakers:

Charles F. Kennel is Distinguished Professor, Vice-Chancellor, and Director emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California. He was educated in astronomy and astrophysics at Harvard and Princeton. He served as UCLA’s Executive Vice Chancellor, its chief academic officer, from 1996 to 1998. From 1994 to 1996, Kennel was Associate Administrator at NASA and Director of Mission to Planet Earth, a global Earth science satellite program. Kennel’s experiences at NASA influenced him to go into Earth and climate science, and he became the ninth Director and Dean of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Vice Chancellor of Marine Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, serving from 1998 to 2006.

Stephen Briggs is currently the senior advisor to the ESA (European Space Agency) and the chair of the UN Global Climate Observing System. He headed the Department of “Earth Observation” (EO) Science, Applications & Future Technologies of ESA at ESRIN (European Space Research Institute). Before joining ESA in 2000, Stephen worked as Director of Earth Observation British National Space Centre & Head of Earth Observation NERC, UK (1994-1999), Head of Remote Sensing Applications Development Unit, NERC/BNSC (1986-1994), Senior Scientist at NERC Thematic Information Systems (1983-1986), and Lecturer at the Dept of Physics, Queen Mary College London (1982-1983). Stephen Briggs is also a Visiting Professor in the Dept. of Meteorology, Reading University.

CSER events this week – all welcome!

There are two great CSER-related events this week in Cambridge.
On Friday: Kay Firth-Butterfield, who leads Lucid AI’s ethical advisory panel, will be speaking about safe and beneficial development of AI, and its relevance to global challenges, for CSER’s public lecture at 4pm at the Winstanley Lecture Theatre, Trinity College. A great opportunity to get an industry perspective on “AI for the good of the many, not the few”. Attendance is free, but please register.

Bio: Kay Firth-Butterfield has worked as a Barrister, Mediator, Arbitrator, Professor and Judge in the United Kingdom. She is a humanitarian with a strong sense of social justice. She has advanced degrees in Law and International Relations which focused on ramifications of pervasive artificial intelligence. After moving to the US she taught at University level before becoming the Chief Officer of the Lucid Ethics Advisory Panel which she envisioned with the CEO and is in the process of creating. Additionally she teaches a course at the University of  Texas Law School on Law and Policy regarding AI and other emerging technologies. 

Book tickets here.

On Sunday, Kay, Dr Fumiya Lida and Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh will be speaking on challenges and policy related to long-term AI as part of the Wilberforce Society’s excellent conference on AI and automation.

Please spread the word!