Since 1990, the United Nations Development Program has been tasked with producing reports every few years on the state of the world. The 2021/2022 Report – Released earlier this month, and the first since the Covid-19 pandemic – is titled Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives. Unsurprisingly, it makes reading stressful.
The report opened, “The war in Ukraine reverberates around the world, causing enormous human suffering, including a cost-of-living crisis. Climatic and environmental disasters threaten the world daily. It is seductively easy to dismiss crises as one-time crises, and it is natural to hope that we will return to “It’s normal. But putting out the latest fire or taking off the newest demagogues will be a game of whack-a-mole that can’t be won unless we come to terms with the fact that the world is fundamentally changing. There is no turning back.”
These words sound real. Just a few years ago, we lived in a world where experts warned for a long time That a pandemic is coming and it could be devastating – now, we live in a world where an epidemic is spreading It is clearly destructive. Just a year ago, there had been no major land war in Europe since World War II, and some experts were optimistic Presumably two states with McDonald’s In them they will never go to war.
Now, not only Russia’s occupation of swathes of Ukraine, but the destruction of the Russian army in combat there has led to yet another regional instability, most notably with Azerbaijan attacks Armenia advance this month. Concerns about the use of nuclear weapons in wartimeCalm since the Cold War, as people worry about whether Putin may resort to tactical nuclear weapons If you face a complete defeat in Ukraine.
Of course, it is possible – and even likely – to resolve all of these situations without catastrophe. The worst rarely happens. But it’s hard to avoid feeling like we’re just rolling the dice, hoping we don’t end up hitting an unlucky number. Every pandemic, every small war between nuclear-armed powers, every new and uncontrolled technology may present only a small chance of escalating into a catastrophic event. But if we take this risk every year without taking precautions, the lifespan of humanity may be limited.
Why ‘existential security’ is the opposite of ‘existential risk’
Toby Ord, Senior Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford and author of Existential Risks The Abyss: Existential Risks and the Future of HumanityThis question is explored in an article in the latest UNDP report. He calls it the problem of “existential security”: the challenge is not just to prevent each individual from potential catastrophe, but the challenge to build a world that stops the dice on potential extinction.
He wrote in the report: “To survive, we need to achieve two things. We must first reduce our current level of existential risk – putting out the fires we already face from the threats of nuclear war and climate change. But we cannot always fight fires. The defining characteristic of existential risk is that it There are no second chances – a single existential catastrophe will be our permanent doom. So we must also create the equivalent of fire brigades and fire safety laws – making institutional changes to ensure that existential risks (including those from new technologies and developments) remain low forever.”
He makes the point with this rather intimidating graph:
The idea is: Suppose we are in a situation where a dictator threatens to use nuclear war, or where there are tensions between two nuclear powers. Looks like he’s reached a breaking point. The situation is probably defused most of the time, as it was already during The Many, Many Imminent Calls of the Cold War. But if this situation is repeated every few decades, the possibility will defuse every possible nuclear war It will decrease steadily. The odds of humanity surviving in 200 years are finally very low, as are the odds of still winning at a game of craps. fall down with every turn.
Existential security is the situation in which we often do not face risks in any year, decade, or even century, and which has a high chance of annihilating civilization. For the sake of existential security from nuclear dangers, for example, we might reduce nuclear arsenals to such an extent that a complete nuclear exchange does not pose the risk of the collapse of civilization, something in which the world has made great progress as nations. Nuclear arsenal levels reduced after the Cold War. For existential security from pandemics, we Can develop personal protective equipment Comfortable to wear and provides almost complete protection against disease, as well as a universal system of Detecting diseases early Ensure that any catastrophic pandemic can be nipped in the bud and people are protected from it.
However, the ideal would be the existential security from everything – not only from the known, but from the unknown. For example, one of the big concerns among experts including Ord is that once we build highly capable AI, AI will greatly accelerate the development of new technologies that put the world at risk while – given how modern AI systems are designed – it will be very difficult To find out what he does or why.
So the ideal approach to managing existential risk is not only to combat today’s threats, but to establish policies that prevent the emergence of threats in the future as well.
This looks great. The long-term recently arguedExistential risks pose a particularly devastating threat because they can destroy not only the present, but also a future in which hundreds of billions of people could one day live. But how can we achieve this?
Ord suggests “an institution aiming at existential security”. He points out that preventing the apocalypse is exactly the kind of thing that is supposed to be within the purview of the United Nations — after all, “the dangers that could destroy us transcend national borders,” he wrote. The problem, Ord notes, is that to prevent existential risks, the institution must have a broad capacity to intervene in the world. No country wants to allow any other country to pursue a very dangerous research program, but at the same time, no country wants to give other countries powers for their own research programmes. Only a supranational authority – something like the International Atomic Energy Agency, but with much broader powers – could overcome those narrow national fears.
Often, the difficult part of securing humanity’s future is not knowing what to do but actually doing it. With climate change, the problem and risks were well understood long before the world took action to shift away from greenhouse gases. Experts warned of the dangers of pandemics before Covid-19 occurred, but they were largely not listened to — and institutions the US thought it was ready, such as the CDC, Turns out it fell on their face during a real crisis. Today there Experts’ warnings about artificial intelligencebut other experts Assure us that there will be no problem We need to try to solve it.
Writing reports only helps if people read them; Building an international institute for existential security only works if there is a way to turn the study of existential risks into serious, coordinated work to make sure we don’t run into them. Ord acknowledges that “there is not enough acceptance at the moment,” but that “this may change over years or decades as people slowly confront the gravity of the threats facing humanity.”
Ord doesn’t speculate on what this change might bring, but personally I’m pessimistic. Anything that changes the international system enough to support international institutions with real authority regarding existential risks is likely to be a devastating disaster in itself. It seems unlikely that we will get down the path of “existential security” without taking some serious risks – which we hope we will survive to learn from.