Partha Dasgupta authors climate change paper for the Vatican

Partha Dasgupta, one of CSER’s founding advisors, has acted as the first author for the Vatican workshop statement, Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement Of The Problem And The Demand For Transformative Solutions. This statement summarizes scientific agreement from the recent Protect The Earth, Dignify Humanity summit. Its authors recommend that the Catholic Church can help by mobilising public opinion and public funds to meet the energy needs of the world’s poorest.

CSER’s co-founder Martin Rees was an author to the paper, alongside Jeffrey Sachs, Veerabhadran Ramananthan, and several others. Two dozen other climate scientists, pontifical academics and religious leaders are signatories.

Partha Dasgupta and Martin Rees at recent Vatican meeting

Partha Dasgupta and Martin Rees of CSER both spoke at a the Pontifical Summit just yesterday. At this summit, entitled Protect The Earth, Dignify Humanity, they both spoke to the need for us to include our environmental impact in our measurement of progress.

Sir Dasgupta, an advisor to CSER, argued that we should move on from considering GDP an ultimate measure of economic success:

“GDP is a disgraceful index because it does not count depreciation of our assets – including damage to Mother Nature, the most fundamental asset we have.”

These discussions may influence the papal Encyclic on climate change, forthcoming in June this year.

CSER Public Lecture: Stuart Russell on Long-Term Future of (Artificial) Intelligence

We’re delighted to announce that Professor Stuart Russell (Berkeley) will be giving a CSER public lecture on May 15th.

The lecture is free and open to everyone, but demand is expected to be high so pre-registration is necessary. Registration and details are available here.

The Long-Term Future of (Artificial) Intelligence

Abstract: The news media in recent months have been full of dire warnings about the risk that AI poses to the human race, coming from well-known figures such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates. Should we be concerned? If so, what can we do about it? While some in the mainstream AI community dismiss these concerns, I will argue instead that a fundamental reorientation of the field is required.

Professor Stuart Russell (Berkeley) is one of the biggest names in modern artificial intelligence worldwide. His Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (cowritten with Google’s head of research Peter Norvig) is a leading textbook in the field.

He is also one of the most prominent people thinking about the long-term impacts and future of AI. He has raised concerns about the potential future use of fully autonomous weapons in war. Thinking longer-term, he has posed the question “What if we succeed” in developing strong AI, and suggests that success in this might represent the biggest event in human history. He has organised a number of prominent workshops and meetings around this topic, and this January wrote an open letter calling for a realignment of the field of AI towards research on safe and beneficial development of AI, now signed by a who’s who of field leaders worldwide.

Other relevant articles on or by Professor Russell:
The long-term future of AI (from his own website)
Of myths and moonshine – his response to the question on the myth of AI.
Concerns of an artificial intelligence pioneer Interview in Quanta

Nick Bostrom TED Talk

Today, a TED talk by FHI Director and CSER Advisor Professor Nick Bostrom went online. In his presentation, What Happens When Our Computers Get Smarter Than We Are? Bostrom reviewed the possible consequences of reaching human-level artificial intelligence, and some considerations for safety strategies.


Here is an excerpt, in which he describes how hard he would expect it to be to reach different levels of intelligence:

“Most people, when people think of what is smart, and what is done, I think have in mind, a picture roughly like this. On one end, we have the village idiot and then far over at the other side, we have Ed Witten or Albert Einstein, or whoever your favourite guru is. But I think that from the point of view of artificial intelligence, the true picture is probably more like this. AI starts off at zero intelligence. And after many years of really hard work, maybe eventually we reach mouse-level intelligence, something that can navigate cluttered environments as well as a mouse can. And then, after many more years of really hard work, lots of investment, maybe we get to chimpanzee-level artificial intelligence. And then, after even more years of really hard work, we get to village idiot-artificial intelligence. And, a few moments later, we are beyond Ed Witten. The train doesn’t stop at humanville station. It’s likely, rather to swoosh right by.”

Despite his concern about a speedy transition, Bostrom conveys a relatively positive outlook:

I’m actually fairly optimistic that this problem can be solved. We wouldn’t have to write down a long list of everything we care about, or worse yet, spell it out in some computer language like C++ or Python, that would be a task beyond hopeless. Instead, we would create an A.I. that uses its intelligence to learn what we value, and its motivation system is constructed in such a way that it is motivated to pursue our values or to perform actions that it predicts we would approve of. We would thus leverage its intelligence as much as possible to solve the problem of value-loading.

This can happen, and the outcome could be very good for humanity. But it doesn’t happen automatically. The initial conditions for the intelligence explosion might need to be set up in just the right way if we are to have a controlled detonation. The values that the A.I. has need to match ours, not just in the familiar context, like where we can easily check how the A.I. behaves, but also in all novel contexts that the A.I. might encounter in the indefinite future.

And there are also some esoteric issues that would need to be solved, sorted out: the exact details of its decision theory, how to deal with logical uncertainty and so forth. So the technical problems that need to be solved to make this work look quite difficult — not as difficult as making a superintelligent A.I., but fairly difficult. Here is the worry: Making superintelligent A.I. is a really hard challenge. Making superintelligent A.I. that is safe involves some additional challenge on top of that. The risk is that if somebody figures out how to crack the first challenge without also having cracked the additional challenge of ensuring perfect safety.

This Friday 24th: April seminar and recruitment deadlines

A brief reminder that the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk’s next seminar will take place this Friday April 24th at 4pm at the Little Hall, Sidgwick Site, Cambridge, CB3 9DA. The speaker is Oxford’s Dr Toby Ord giving a seminar titled “Will we cause our own extinction? Natural versus anthropogenic extinction risks”. The seminar is free and open to everyone.

Toby Ord is a Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University & Oxford Martin School. He works on theoretical and practical questions concerning population ethics, global priorities, existential risk and new technologies, and recently contributed a chapter on Managing Existential Risk from Emerging Tehnologies for the Chief Scientific Advisor’s annual report to the UK government.
All details are available here:

The deadline for CSER’s current recruitment round also closes this Friday 24th at 12 midday.

Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute (Dr Ord’s home centre) is also recruiting for a postdoctoral researcher to work on artificial intelligence safety, closing shortly.

Learn more about CSER

We are grateful to the Future of Life Institute and writer Sophie Hebdon for an excellent piece about our work at CSER.

Ever since our ancestors discovered how to make sharp stones more than two and a half million years ago, our mastery of tools has driven our success as a species. But as our tools become more powerful, we could be putting ourselves at risk should they fall into the wrong hands— or if humanity loses control of them altogether. Concerned with bioengineered viruses, unchecked climate change, and runaway artificial intelligence? These are the challenges the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) was founded to grapple with.

At its heart, CSER is about ethics and the value you put on the lives of future, unborn people. If we feel any responsibility to the billions of people in future generations, then a key concern is ensuring that there are future generations at all… Read more

The in-depth article contains updates on some of our recent events, interviews with directors Seán Ó hEigeartaigh, Huw Price and Martin Rees, and can be read in full at the FLI website.

Jaan Tallinn on thinking from first principles

Jaan Tallinn, one of CSER’s three cofounders, has recently given an interview for John Brockman’s In this interview, Jaan discusses the difficulty of thinking clearly about existential risks:

Elon Musk said at his interview at the TED conference a couple of years ago, that there are two kinds of thinking. All of humanity, most of the time, engages in what you call metaphorical thinking, or analog-based thinking. They bring in metaphors from different domains and then apply them to a domain that they want to analyze, which is like things that they do intuitively. It’s quick, cheap, but it’s imprecise. The other kind of thinking is that you reason from first principles. It’s slow, painful, and most people don’t do it, but reasoning from first principles is really the only way we can deal with unforeseen things in a sufficiently rigorous manner. For example, sending a man to the moon, or creating a rocket. If it hasn’t been done before, we can’t just use our knowledge. We can’t just think about “how would I behave if I were a rocket” and then go from there. You have to do the calculations. The thing with existential risks is it’s the same. It’s hard to reason about them, these things that have never happened. But they’re incredibly important, and you have to engage in this slow and laborious process of listening to the arguments and not pattern-matching them to things that you think might be relevant.

In relation to risks from artificial intelligence, which have long been an object of his attention, Jaan draws a conciliatory line with AI researchers, while advocating that more research on safety needs to be done:

More generally, everyone who is on a causal path of new technologies being developed, is in some way responsible for making sure that the new technologies that are brought into existence as a result of their efforts, they are responsible for ensuring that they are beneficial in the long term for humanity.

I would say that I don’t have any favorites, or any particular techniques within the domain of AI that I’m particularly worried about. First of all, I’m much more calm about these things. Perhaps by virtue of just having longer exposure to AI companies and people who develop AI. I know that they are well-meaning and people with good integrity.

Personally, I think the biggest research that we need to advance is how to analyze the consequences of bringing about very competent decision-making systems to always ensure that we have some degree of control over them, and we won’t just end up in a situation where this thing is loose and there’s nothing we can do now.

You can read the full interview, or watch the video here.

Bill Gates and Elon Musk on the “Huge Challenge” of Artifical Intelligence

In a recent interview with Baidu CEO Roblin Li, both Bill Gates and Elon Musk spoke of the importance of research into ensuring artifial intelligence (AI) would be safe, if AI advanced to smater-than-human level.

Explaining the potential risk that superintelligent AI would pose, Elon Musk suggested

[An] analogy would be if you consider nuclear research, with its potential for a very dangerous weapon. Releasing the energy is easy; containing that energy safely is very difficult. And so I think the right emphasis for AI research is on AI safety. We should put vastly more effort into AI safety than we should into advancing AI in the first place. Because it may be good, or it may be bad. And it could be catastrophically bad if there could be the equivalent to a nuclear meltdown. So you really want to emphasize safety.

Bill Gates added that his view of the seriousness of the risk is no different and would “highly recommend” people read Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence.

A video of their discussion of AI is avaiable here, and the transcript here.

CSER Seminar April 24th: Will We Cause Our Own Extinction?

CSER’s April seminar will be on Friday 24th April, 4.00-5.30pm.  Dr Toby Ord (Oxford) will present on the topic “Will we cause our own extinction? Natural versus anthropogenic extinction risks

Toby Ord is a Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University & Oxford Martin School. He works on theoretical and practical questions concerning population ethics, global priorities, existential risk and new technologies, and recently contributed a report on Managing Existential Risk from Emerging Technologies to the Chief Scientific Advisor’s annual report for the UK government.

This seminar in particular should prove an excellent introduction to the risks that CSER focuses on and the importance of global prioritization to reduce existential risk.

We are grateful for the high level of interest in our seminar series so far and for Dr Ord’s talk we have moved to the larger venue Little Hall, Sidgwick Site, Cambridge University, CB3 9DA. The event is free, open to all and will be followed by a drinks reception.

Videos of previous seminars are available on the CSER Youtube Channel.

April 24th is also the application deadline for our current vacancies, details here.


New research vacancies at CSER

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is recruiting for up to four full-time postdoctoral research associates to work on the project Towards a Science of Extreme Technological Risk.

We are looking for outstanding and highly-committed researchers, interested in working as part of growing research community, with research projects relevant to any aspect of the project. We invite applicants to explain their project to us, and to demonstrate their commitment to the study of extreme technological risks.

We have several shovel-ready projects for which we are looking for suitable postdoctoral researchers. These include:

  • Ethics and evaluation of extreme technological risk (ETR) (with Sir Partha Dasgupta);
  • Horizon-scanning and foresight for extreme technological risks (with Professor William Sutherland);
  • Responsible innovation and extreme technological risk (with Dr Robert Doubleday and the Centre for Science and Policy).
  • However, recruitment will not necessarily be limited to these subprojects, and our main selection criterion is suitability of candidates and their proposed research projects to CSER’s broad aims.

    Details are available here. Closing date: April 24th.