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[ACC] Should We Colonize Space To Mitigate X-Risk?

[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Nick D and Rob S.]

I.

Nick Bostrom defines existential risks (or X-risks) as “[risks] where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” Essentially this boils down to events where a bad outcome lies somewhere in the range of ‘destruction of civilization’ to ‘extermination of life on Earth’. Given that this has not already happened to us, we are left in the position of making predictions with very little directly applicable historical data, and as such it is a struggle to generate and defend precise figures for probabilities and magnitudes of different outcomes in these scenarios. Bostrom’s introduction to existential risk​ provides more insight into this problem than there is space for here.

There are two problems that arise with any discussion of X-risk mitigation. Is this worth doing? And how do you generate the political will necessary to handle the issue? Due to scope constraints this collaboration will not engage with either question, but will simply assume that the reader sees value in the continuation of the human species and civilization. The collaborators see X-risk mitigation as a “​Molochian​” problem, as we blindly stumble into these risks in the process of maturing our civilisation, or perhaps a twist on the tragedy of the commons. Everyone agrees that we should try to avoid extinction, but nobody wants to pay an outsized cost to prevent it. Coordination problems have been solved throughout history, and the collaborators assume that as the public becomes more educated on the subject, more pressure will be put on world governments to solve the issue.

Exactly which scenarios should be described as X-risks is impossible to pin down, but on the chart above, the closer you get to the top right, the more significant the concern. Considering there is no reliable data on the probability of a civilization collapsing pandemic or many other of these scenarios, the true risk of any scenario is impossible to determine. So any of the above scenarios should be considered dangerous, but for some of them, we have already enacted preparations and mitigation strategies. World governments are already preparing for X-risks such as nuclear war, or pandemics by leveraging conventional mitigation strategies like nuclear disarmament and WHO funding. When applicable, these strategies should be pursued in parallel with the strategies discussed in this paper. However, for something like a gamma ray burst or grey goo scenario, there is very little that can be done to prevent civilizational collapse. In these cases, the only effective remedy is the development of ​closed systems​. Lifeboats. Places for the last vestiges of humanity to hide and survive and wait for the catastrophe to burn itself out. There is no guarantee that any particular lifeboat would survive. But a dozen colonies scattered across every continent or every world would allow humanity to rise from the ashes of civilization.

Both authors of this adversarial collaboration agree that the human species is worth preserving, and that closed systems represent the best compromise between cost, feasibility, and effectiveness. We disagree, however, on if the lifeboats should be terrestrial, or off world. We’re going to go into more detail on the benefits and challenges of each, but in brief the argument boils down to whether we should aim more conservatively by developing the systems terrestrially, or ‘shoot for the stars’ and build an offworld base and reap the secondary benefits

II.

For the X-risks listed above, there are measures that could be taken to reduce the risk of them occurring, or to mitigate against the negative outcomes. The most concrete steps that have been taken so far that mitigate against X-risks would be the creation of organisations like the UN, intended to disincentivize warmongering behaviour and reward cooperation. Similarly the World Health Organisation and acts like the Kyoto Protocol serve to reduce the chances of catastrophic disease outbreak and climate change respectively. MIRI works to reduce the risk of rogue AI coming into being, while space missions like the Sentinel telescope from the B612 Foundation seek to spot incoming asteroids from space.

While mitigation attempts are to be lauded, and expanded upon, our planet, global ecosystem, and biosphere are still the single point of failure for our human civilization. Creating separate reserves of human civilization, in the form of offworld colonies or closed systems on Earth, would be the most effective approach to mitigating against the worst outcomes of X-risk.

The scenario for these backups would go something like this: despite the best efforts to reduce the chance of any given catastrophe it occurs, and efforts made to protect/preserve civilization at large fail. Thankfully, our closed system or space colony has been specifically hardened to survive against the worst we can imagine, and a few thousand humans survive in their little self-sufficient bubble with the hope of retaining existing knowledge and technology until the point where they have grown enough to resume the advancement of human civilization, and the species/civilization loss event has been averted.

Some partial analogues come to mind when thinking of closed systems and colonies; the colonisation of the New World, Antarctic exploration and scientific bases, the Biosphere 2 experiment, the International Space Station, and nuclear submarines. These do not all exactly match the criteria of a closed system lifeboat, but lessons can be learned.

One of the challenges of X-risk mitigation is developing useful cost/benefit analyses for various schemes that might protect against catastrophic events. Given the uncertainty inherent in the outcomes and probabilities of these events, it can be very difficult to pin down the ‘benefit’ side of the equation; if you invest $5B in an asteroid mitigation scheme, are you rescuing humanity in 1% of counterfactuals or are you just softening the blow in 0.001% of them? If those fronting the costs can’t be convinced that they’re purchasing real value in terms of the future then it’s going to be awfully hard to convince them to spend that money. Additionally, the ‘cost’ side of the equation is not necessarily simple either, as many of the available solutions are unprecedented in scale or scope (and take the form of large infrastructure projects famous for cost-overruns). The crux of our disagreement ended up resting on the question of cost/benefit for terrestrial and offworld lifeboats, and the possibility of raising the funds and successfully establishing these lifeboats.

III.

The two types of closed systems under consideration are offworld colonies, or planetary closed systems. An offworld colony would likely be based on some local celestial body, perhaps Mars, or one of Jupiter’s moons. For an offworld colony, the X-risk mitigation wouldn’t be the only point in its favor. A colony would also be able to provide secondary and tertiary benefits in acting as a research base and exploration hub, and possibly taking advantage of otheropportunities offered by off-planet environments.

In terms of X-risk mitigation, these colonies would work much the same as the planetary lifeboats, where isolation from the main population provides protection from most disasters. The advantage would lie in the extreme isolation offered by leaving the Earth. While a planetary lifeboat might allow a small population to survive a pandemic, a nuclear/volcanic winter, or catastrophic climate change, other threats such as an asteroid strike or nuclear strikes themselves would retain the ability to wipe out human civilization in the worst case.

Offworld colonies would provide near complete protection from asteroid strikes and threats local to the Earth such as pandemics, climate catastrophe, or geological events, as well as being out of range of existing nuclear weaponry. Climate change wouldn’t realistically be an issue on Mars, the Moon, or anywhere else in space, pandemics would be unable to spread from Earth, and the colonies would probably be low priority targets come the breakout of nuclear war. While eradicating human civilisation would require enough asteroid strikes to hit every colony, astronomically reducing the odds.

Historically, the only successful drivers for human space presence have been political, the Space Race being the obvious example. I would attribute this to a combination of two factors; human presence in space doesn’t increase the value of scientific research possible enough to offset the costs of supporting them there, and no economically attractive proposals exist for human space presence. As such, the chances of an off-planet colony being founded as a research base or economic enterprise are low in the near future. This leaves them in a similar position to planetary lifeboats, which also fail to provide an economic incentive or research prospects beyond studying the colony itself. To me this suggests that the point of argument between the two possibilities lies on the trade-off between the costs of establishing a colony on or off planet, and the risk mitigation they would respectively provide.

The value of human space presence for research purposes is only likely to decrease as automation and robotics improve, while for economic purposes, as access to space becomes cheaper, it may be possible to come up with some profitable activity for people off-planet. The most likely options for this would involve some kind of tourism, or if the colony was orbital, zero-g manufacturing of advanced materials, while an unexpectedly attractive proposal would be to offer retirement homes off planet for the ultra wealthy (to reduce the strain of gravity on their bodies in an already carefully controlled environment). It seems unlikely that any of these activities would be sufficiently profitable to justify an entire colony, but they could at least serve to offset some of the costs.

Perhaps the closest historical analogue to these systems would be the colonisation of the New World, the length of the trip was comparable (two months for the Mayflower, at least six to reach Mars), and isolation from home further compounded by the expense and lead time on mounting additional missions. Explorers traveling to the New World disappeared without warning multiple times, presumably due to the difficulty of sending for external help when unexpected problems were encountered. Difficulties associated with these kinds of unknown unknowns were encountered during the Biosphere projects as well, it transpired that ​trees grown in enclosed space​s​ won’t develop enough structural integrity to hold their own weight, as it is the stresses due to wind that cause them to develop this strength. It appears that this was not something that was even on the radar before the project happened, while several other unforeseen issues also had to be solved, the running theme was that in the event of an emergency supplies and assistance could come from outside to solve the problem. A space-based colony would have to solve problems of this kind with only what would be immediately to hand. With modern technology, assistance in the form of information would be available (see Gene Kranz and Ground Control’s rescue of Apollo 13), but lead times on space missions mean that even emergency flights to the ISS, for which travel time could be as little as ten minutes, aren’t really feasible. As such off-planet lifeboats would be expected to suffer more from unexpected problems than terrestrial lifeboats, and be more likely to fail before there was even any need for them.

The other big disadvantage of a space colony is the massively increased cost of construction, Elon Musk’s going estimate for a ‘self sustaining civilization’ on Mars is $100B – $10T, assuming that SpaceX’s plans for reducing the cost of transport to Mars work out as planned. In order to offer an apples to apples comparison with the terrestrial lifeboat considered later in this collaboration, if Musk’s estimate for a population of one million for a self-sustaining city is scaled down to the 4000 families considered below (a population of 16000) our cost estimate comes down to $1.6B – $160B. Bearing in mind that this is just for transport of the requisite mass to Mars, we would expect development and construction costs to be higher. With sufficient political will, these kinds of costs can be met; the Apollo program cost an estimated $150B in today’s money (why the cost of space travel for private and government run enterprises has changed so much across sixty years is an exercise left to the reader). Realistically though, it seems unlikely that any political crisis will occur to which the solution seems to be a second space race of a similar magnitude. This leaves the colonization project in the difficult position of trying to discern the best way to fund itself. Can enough international coordination be achieved to fund a colonization effort in a manner similar to the LHC or the ISS (but an order of magnitude larger)? Will the ongoing but very quiet space race between China, what’s left of Western space agencies human spaceflight efforts, and US private enterprise escalate into a colony race? Or will Musk’s current hope of ‘build it and they will come’ result in access to Mars spurring massive private investment into Martian infrastructure projects?

IV

Planetary closed systems would be exclusively focused on allowing us to survive a catastrophic scenario (read: “zombie apocalypse”). Isolated using geography and technology, Earth based closed systems would still have many similarities to an offworld colony. Each lifeboat would need to make its own food, water, energy, and air. People would be able to leave during emergencies like a fire, ​O​2​ failure or heart attack, but the community would generally be closed off from the outside world. Once the technology has been developed, there is no reason other countries couldn’t replicate the project. In fact, it should be encouraged. Multiple communities located in different regions of the world would actually have three big benefits. Diversity, redundancy, and sovereignty. Allowing individual countries to make their own decisions allows different designs with no common points of failure and if one of the sites does fail, there are other communities that will still survive. Site locations should be chosen based on

● Political stability of the host nation
● System implementation plan
● Degree of exposure to natural disasters
● Geographic location
● Cultural Diversity

There is no reason a major nation couldn’t develop a lifeboat on their own, but considering the benefits of diversity, smaller nations should be encouraged to develop their own projects through UN funding and support. A UN committee made up of culturally diverse nations could be charged with examining grant proposals using the above criteria. In practice, this would mean a country would go before the committee and apply for a grant to help build their lifeboat.

Let’s say the US has selected Oracle, Arizona as a possible site for an above ground closed system. The proposal points out the cool, dry air minimizes decomposition, located far from major cities or nuclear targets, and protected and partially funded by the United States. The committee reviews the request and their only concern is the periodic earthquakes in the region. To improve the quality of their bid, The United States adds a guarantee that the town’s demographics would be reflected in the system by committing to a 40% Latino system. The committee considers the cultural benefits of the site, and approves the funding.

Oracle, Arizona wasn’t a random example, In fact it’s already the site of the world’s largest Closed Ecological System [CES] It actually was used as the site of Biosphere 2. As described by ​acting CEO Steve Bannon:

Biosphere 2 was designed as an environmental lab that replicated […] all the different ecosystems of the earth… It has been referred to in the past as a planet in a bottle.. It does not directly replicate earth [but] it’s the closest thing we’ve ever come to having all the major biomes, all the major ecosystems, plant species, animals etc. Really trying to make an analogue for the planet Earth.

I feel like I need to take a moment to point out that that was not a typo, and the quote above is provided by ​that​ Steve Bannon. I don’t know what else to say about that other than to acknowledge how weird it is (very).

As our friend Steve “Darth Vader” Bannon points out, what made Biosphere 2 unique, is that it was a Closed Ecological System where 8 scientists were sealed into an area of around 3 acres for a period of 2 years (Sept 26, 1991 – Sept. 27, 1993). There are many significant differences from the Biosphere 2 project and a lifeboat for humanity. Biosphere 2 contained a rainforest, for example. But the project was the longest a group of humans have ever been cut off from earth (“Biosphere 1”). Our best view into what issues future citizens of Mars may face is through the glass wall of a giant greenhouse in Arizona.

One of the major benefits of using terrestrial lifeboats as opposed to planetary colonies is that if (when) something goes wrong, nobody dies. There is no speed of light delay for problem solving, outside staff are available to provide emergency support, and in the event of a fire or gas leak, everyone can be evacuated. In Biosphere 2, something went wrong. Over the course of 16 months the oxygen in the Biosphere dropped from 20.9% from 14.5%. At the lowest levels, scientists were reporting trouble climbing stairs and inability to perform basic arithmetic. Outside support staff had liquid oxygen transported to the biosphere and pumped in.

A 1993 New York Times article “​Too Rich a Soil: Scientists find Flaw That Undid The Biosphere​” reports:

A mysterious decline in oxygen during the two-year trial run of the project endangered the lives of crew members and forced its leaders to inject huge amounts of oxygen […] The cause of the life-threatening deficit, scientists now say, was a glut of organic material like peat and compost in the structure’s soils. The organic matter set off an explosive growth of oxygen-eating bacteria, which in turn produced a rush of carbon dioxide in the course of bacterial respiration.

Considering a Martian city would need to rely on the same closed system technology as Biosphere 2, It seems that a necessary first step for a permanent community on Mars would be to demonstrate the ability to develop a reliable, sustainable, and safe closed system. I reached out to William F. Dempster, The Chief Engineer for the Biosphere 2. He has been a huge help and provided tons of papers that he authored during his time on the project. He was kind enough to point out some of the challenges of building closed systems intended for long-term human habitation:

What you are contemplating is a human life support pod that can endure on its own for generations, if not indefinitely, in a hostile environment devoid of myriads of critical resources that we are so accustomed to that we just take them for granted. A sealed structure like Biosphere 2 [….] is absolutely essential, but, if one also has to independently provide the energy and all the external conditions necessary, the whole problem is orders of magnitude more challenging.

The degree to which an off-planet lifeboat would lack resources compared to a terrestrial one would be dependent on the kind of disaster scenario that occurred, in some cases such as pandemic, it could be feasible to eventually venture out and recover machines, possibly some foods, and air and water (all with appropriate sterilization). While in the case of an asteroid strike or nuclear war at a civilization-destruction level, the lifeboat would have to be resistant to much the same conditions as an off-planet colony, as these are the kind of disasters where the Earth could conceivably become nearly as inhospitable as the rest of the solar system. To provide similar levels of x-risk protection as an off-planet colony in these situations, the terrestrial lifeboat would need to be as capable as Dempster worries.

While Biosphere 2 is in many ways a good analogue for some of the challenges a terrestrial closed system would face, There are many differences as well. First, Biosphere 2 was intended to maintain a living, breathing, ecosystem, while a terrestrial lifeboat would be able to leverage modern technology in order to save on costs, and the cost for a terrestrial lifeboat is really the biggest selling point. A decent mental model could be a large, relatively squat building, with an enclosed central courtyard. Something like the​ ​world’s largest office building​. It cost 1 billion dollars in today’s money to build, and bought us 6.5 million sq ft of living space. Enough for 4000 families to each have a comfortable 2 bedroom home. A lifeboat would have additional expenses for food and energy generation, as well as needing medical and entertainment facilities, but the facility could have a construction cost of around $250,000 per family. The median US home price is $223,800.

There is one additional benefit that can’t be overlooked, Due to the closed nature of the community, the tech centric lifestyle, and combined with the subsidized cost of living. There is a natural draw for software research, development, and technology companies. Creating a government sponsored technology hub would allow young engineers a small city to congregate, sparking new innovation. This wouldn’t and shouldn’t be a permanent relocation. In good times, with low risks, new people could be continuously brought in and cycled out periodically, with lockdowns only occurring in times of trouble. The X-risk benefits are largely dependent on the facilities themselves, but the facilities will naturally have nuclear fallout and pandemic protection as well as a certain amount of inclement weather or climate protection. Depending on the facility, There could be (natural or designed) radiation protection. Overall, a planetary system of lifeboats would be able to survive anything an offworld colony would survive, outside of a rogue AI or grey goo scenario. But simultaneously the facilities would have a very low likelihood of a system failure resulting in massive loss of life the way a Martian colony could.

V.

To conclude, we decided that terrestrial and off-planet lifeboats offer very similar amounts of protection from x-risks, with off-planet solutions adding a small amount additional protection in certain scenarios whilst being markedly more expensive than a terrestrial equivalent, with additional risks and unknowns to the construction process.

The initial advocate for off-planet colonies now concedes that the additional difficulties associated with constructing a space colony would encourage the successful construction of terrestrial lifeboats before attempts are made to construct one on another body. The only reason to still countenance their construction at all is an issue which revealed itself to the advocate for terrestrial biospheres towards the end of the collaboration. A terrestrial lifeboat could end up being easily discontinued and abandoned if funding/political will failed, whereas a space colony would be very difficult to abandon due to the astronomical (​pun intended​) expense of transporting every colonist back. A return trip for even a relatively modest number of colonists would require billions of dollars allocated over several years, by, most importantly, multiple sessions of a congress or parliament. This creates a paradigm where a terrestrial lifeboat, while being less expensive and in many ways more practical, could never be a long term guarantor of human survival do to its ease of decommissioning (as was seen in the Biosphere 2 incident). To be clear, the advocate for terrestrial lifeboats considers this single point sufficient to decide the debate in its entirety and concedes the debate without reservation.

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195 Responses to [ACC] Should We Colonize Space To Mitigate X-Risk?

  1. Chaostician says:

    The most natural groups to create lifeboats are persecuted religious movements. They are willing to endure hardships and cut themselves off from the world to create their ideal society. Examples of this sort of colonization abound: the Puritans in New England, the Quakers etc in Pennsylvania, the Mormons in Utah, and the Jews in Israel.

  2. anonymousskimmer says:

    Due to the closed nature of the community, the tech centric lifestyle, and combined with the subsidized cost of living. There is a natural draw for software research, development, and technology companies. Creating a government sponsored technology hub would allow young engineers a small city to congregate, sparking new innovation. This wouldn’t and shouldn’t be a permanent relocation. In good times, with low risks, new people could be continuously brought in and cycled out periodically, with lockdowns only occurring in times of trouble.

    No, no, no! A technology hub is the wrong idea!

    You’ve described an ideal small University. With the added benefits of the majority of residents being young, mostly unrelated, and many disciplines represented, along with the knowledge and capability of regenerating various skills and technology from scratch.

  3. Donald Hobson says:

    Overall, a planetary system of lifeboats would be able to survive anything an offworld colony would survive, outside of a rogue AI or grey goo scenario.

    I would expect an off world colony to survive a grey goo event. Grey goo being dumb but very effective replicators, and basically being something that couldn’t happen by accident, and would take significantly more expertise to build than Drexler style nanotech. I don’t think an of world colony would survive rouge AI. The colony will probably have a radio receiver, and the AI will beam itself across. Otherwise, the AI will build a rocket. Mars is made of atoms that could be paperclips too.

  4. zardoz says:

    I think people are way too optimistic about the potential for “terrestrial lifeboats” to succeed. If the lifeboat isn’t secret, it will be mobbed by people trying to get in as soon as whatever bad event you’re trying to protect against happens. People are not just going to stand politely outside and die for the good of the species.

    But keeping the lifeboat secret is a nearly impossible task. Basically you need to have a group of people living cut off from the world for generations with nobody giving away the secret.

    There is also a strong temptation for anyone on Earth to use the resources that Earth provides. For example, why not use the regular air supply rather than creating a closed air system? It’s so much easier– and in the short term, safer. But in the long term, it could make the lifeboat useless if the atmosphere gets poisoned.

    So the whole terrestrial lifeboat thing is kind of like the people who say they could get an MIT-equivalent education with just their library card. Sure you could, buddy. In theory. In practice, after a few months, you’re going to be sitting on your couch playing XBox for 8 hours a day because the environment around you is not keeping you focused.

    • Donald Hobson says:

      You won’t be mobbed if you build it in central antartica, or on rockall, or somewhere else that Joe Bloggs can’t get to. To stop any visitors being a problem, a really solid door and lock is recommended. Medieval castles used boiling oil to deter unwanted guests. Any of this getting built depends on a lot of people caring about X risk. If they don’t care enough to put in an air system, they don’t care enough to do the other things either and they are just regular builders.

      • zardoz says:

        I agree that keeping people out is physically possible, but it’s probably not politically possible in a lot of scenarios.

        If you locate your terrestrial lifeboat inside an existing country, you will be bound by its laws, which will include allowing people entry. Yes, even if it is private property.

        If you aren’t in an existing country, you are creating your own country. I know you mentioned the North Pole as an example. Even if you’re allowed to settle there (and you probably won’t be), it will get complicated fast. You will basically be part of great power politics.

        In many cases, neutrality is not really an option. For example, if you are on friendly terms with Putin’s Russia, you almost certainly can’t also be on friendly terms with the United States. And you need to be on friendly terms with somebody to get access to financial markets, goods and supplies, colonists, etc. But if you’re in the US camp, why wouldn’t Putin target an ICBM at you for when the SHTF?

        Space colonies avoid most of these issues because they are truly cut off from Earth– militarily and economically.

  5. Reasoner says:

    One thing which motivated New World settlement was religious differences. It seems like we’ve got some pretty deep political differences nowadays. Perhaps they will motivate space colonization, since there’s not much unoccupied land on Earth to form a new country with? Would space colonization motivated by ideological separatism etc. (“spacesteading”) be a good thing or bad thing?

    I guess the problem is that the techno-optimistic faction (insofar as that is a faction in modern politics) doesn’t seem very motivated by separatism.

    • hnau says:

      I may be in the minority here, but I consider insulation from memes (broadly defined) to be a non-negligible X-risk-style benefit of the closed-system colonies being considered.

      Not quite the same as what you’re describing but my hunch is that geographical “separatism” won’t cut it anymore given the Internet’s effect on culture / politics.

  6. Reasoner says:

    Wikipedia says Steven Bannon hasn’t been involved in the biosphere project for over 2 decades.

  7. hnau says:

    This was a mildly interesting essay on the subject of closed systems, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from the “Should” title, and I wasn’t satisfied with its analysis. Two specific objections:

    1. As the collaborators note, the estimated benefits of mitigating X-risk have error bars that are multiple orders of magnitude wide. Meanwhile it looks like the collaborators arrived at costs in the neighborhood of $1-10 billion for a closed system on Earth and $10-100 billion for a closed system in space– making very generous assumptions in both cases. That’s only 1 order of magnitude. This makes me think the “which is better” framing isn’t be very helpful. If and when closed-system survival becomes a realistic possibility and/or necessity, the most likely answer will be whydontwedoboth.gif.
    2. The collaborators don’t make a serious effort even to Fermi-estimate the X-risk benefits of closed systems in space vs. on Earth, and on Earth vs. no closed systems. This is weird because the two top-rightmost risks in their (quite subjective) graph don’t actually care about either difference. Rogue AI devours not only Earth but also Mars and eventually the rest of the universe in most models. On the other hand, nuclear war and most other plausible scenarios are overwhelming likely to “only” cause civilization collapse, not total extinction, so it’s hard to see what a closed system is actually hedging against.

    The write-up is informative as far as it goes, but neither gripping nor professional. I finished without feeling that the authors had really come to grips with the question or gotten much benefit out of the “adversarial collaboration” setup.

    I rate this collaboration as a 4/10 (no particular scale or judgment implied; this is just for my own reference). As always, many thanks to the authors for putting in the work to create this.

  8. John Schilling says:

    165 comments, and still no mention of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves?

    Spoiler warning, obviously, but skipping ROT13 for a 2015 novel.

    The X-risk on that one was completely, self-admittedly arbitrary, but the crash program that followed explicitly included both terrestrial and extraterrestrial lifeboats. Amusingly, the extraterrestrial lifeboats that were the focus of the story were pretty clearly a diversionary effort, expected to keep people alive only through doomsday plus maybe a few months, to give a false hope for the doomed masses of global humanity. It had, as planned, no possible hope of long-term success.

    The lifeboats that were expected to succeed, were the terrestrial (and primarily aquatic) ones, set up in great secrecy because the selection criteria was strictly technical skill mix + cultural compatibility with the United States Navy (or Can-Am hard rock miners). This was probably a cheaper effort, and was successful in spite of the X-risk being intensely Earth-centric.

    The space lifeboats succeed only because Elon Bezos decided to sacrifice his life and fortune giving them an illicit boost. Having survived, albeit barely (see title), they had wider scope for prompt reconstruction and so had rebuilt a thriving civilization when the terrestrial survivors dug themselves out after five thousand or so years.

    • hnau says:

      Yeah, I liked Seveneves and its survival ideas. But what this discussion reminded me more of was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (which I see another commenter already mentioned). It’s about an interstellar colony ship and a lot of it is about 3 or 4 ways that a “closed system” on this scale would actually be extremely scary and difficult.

      • John Schilling says:

        But going interstellar actually requires closure, whereas both terrestrial and extraterrestrial lifeboats will have ready access to just about the whole periodic table in whatever quantities they could plausibly require. And terrestrial lifeboats benefit from reduced mass constraints as well, e.g. “OBTW here’s the pit where we buried an extra fifty thousand tons of everything we thought you might possibly run short of in the next few centuries”

  9. Loriot says:

    I was very disappointed with this ACC. It reads like two science fiction fans arguing about what color to paint our warp drives without even discussing whether warp drives are actually possible and if so, how to build them.

  10. Gurkenglas says:

    > Overall, a planetary system of lifeboats would be able to survive anything an offworld colony would survive, outside of a rogue AI or grey goo scenario.

    Going off-world wouldn’t stop a rogue AI from just following you. If it has sufficient reason to take over the world, it’ll probably also take over the universe.

    • John Schilling says:

      Depending on the computational architecture, latency issues may limit the AI to sending relatively stupid agents to do its offworld bidding. And the arrival of those stupid agents should be known well in advance. This probably gives any humans on the far edge at least a small advantage over their terrestrial-lifeboat colleagues in resisting the nigh-inevitable.

      But for any X-risk that involves an intelligent agent, artificial or otherwise, you have to assume that the intelligence will A: know of and B: account for any lifeboats, wherever they may be. If you’re worried about e.g. nuclear war, understand that by the time there are self-sufficient Mars colonies, anyone interested in waging nuclear war at X-risk levels will have interplanetary nuclear missiles.

      • acymetric says:

        anyone interested in waging nuclear war at X-risk levels will have interplanetary nuclear missiles.

        They didn’t make it a key point, just kind of mentioned it in passing, so I wasn’t going to make a big deal of it, but I thought listing “being out of range of nuclear weapons” was a weird point in favor. I’m pretty sure the literal only reason we don’t have nukes capable of reaching Mars is that there isn’t anyone on Mars at the moment. I’m pretty sure we could whip one up with existing technology and send it on its way in pretty short order.

        • TheRadicalModerate says:

          It’s fairly easy to nuke a planet-bound installation, but it’s a lot harder to nuke a space colony. Orbital mechanics is the defender’s friend. A missile has a fixed amount of delta-v, and flight times to orbital habitats could be measured in months. That’s an awful lot of time to fire defenses at the incoming, and it has to dodge each one, which eats up its propellant.

          Also, nukes destroy things with air blast, ground shock, and heat. Only heat is effective against a space colony, so the nuke has to get really, really close to do any damage.

          Stealth is a problem for defenders, but stealth also puts limits on the offense. If the nuke has to maneuver, odds are that it’s going to be seen.

          • acymetric says:

            Maybe I missed it, but this collaboration almost exclusively talked about planet-bound structures (just on different planets).

          • John Schilling says:

            A nuclear weapon can be approximated as a very powerful X-ray flashbulb. In thick air (Earth, not Mars), these X-rays are absorbed within the first ten meters, resulting in a bubble of very hot gas which radiates heat and expands to produce a blast wave.

            In a vacuum, or sufficiently thin air, the X-rays impinge directly on the target. And if you’re standing anywhere near a nuclear weapon, that doesn’t mean “neat, I can take a picture of your skeleton” or even “and now you might get radiation sickness”. Out to a distance of roughly 500*sqrt(yield, kT) meters, the X-ray intensity is high enough to vaporize steel.

            At the margin, only a very thin layer of steel. But if a thin layer of steel on the outside of a structure is vaporized faster than it can thermally expand, then you have a thin, then the layer of hot, dense, gaseous steel will briefly exert a pressure of at least 3.5E9 Pa (500,000 psi) on whatever is underneath. That’s likely to cause substantial mechanical damage, in a way that looks rather like a blast wave.

            And a bit of cleverness: The way hydrogen bombs work, is to use the X-rays from an atomic bomb to briefly exert a uniform 500,000+ psi ablation pressure on a metal container full of hydrogen (well, lithium deuteride) so as to compress and heat it to an astronomical degree.

          • TheRadicalModerate says:

            @John:

            Do you have a reference for your 500sqrt(yield) and 3.5 GPa numbers?

            I’m a bit skeptical that anybody would design a space colony that was single-hulled and steel-encased. At the very least, you need a double-hulled system with radiation shielding (a couple of meters of water works great) in between. Seems that just leaving a bit of a centrifugal air gap between the inner surface of the water and the inner hull would mitigate a lot of overpressure events. Meteoroid damage would need to be built in, and ISTM that the same system would do a pretty good job of handling any gamma pulse that was more than about 1 km away.

            If you really, really, really want to kill a space colony, you can probably manage it. But you’d have to task an awful lot of nukes and expensive delivery vehicles to get a reasonable probability of a kill. In a civilization-ending war, my guess is that those resources could be better deployed making the rubble bounce.

          • pontifex says:

            Some context is missing here, I think. The surface of Mars is already a radioactive wasteland because Mars has no magnetosphere. All the realistic colony proposals talk about underground structures, usually at least five meters down, to minimize radiation hazards.

            Additionally, even the fastest missiles would take months to get to Mars. They could be targeted along the way, especially by beam weapons too fast to dodge.

          • John Schilling says:

            Do you have a reference for your 500sqrt(yield) and 3.5 GPa numbers?

            Hand calculation from thermodynamic properties of iron and penetration depth of X-rays at nuclear-weapon energies.

            And the double-hull concept doesn’t buy you as much as you think it does, when the outer hull is impulsively accelerated inwards to multiple km/s. You can defeat nuclear weapons with enough mass and strength, and you can be clever about it, but if you’re dealing with nuclear-weapons levels of brute force then “I cleverly put a layer of sheet metal on some standoffs” isn’t going to do the job.

            It is roughly as difficult to harden targets in space (or on Mars) against nuclear weapons, as it is to harden targets on Earth against nuclear weapons.

  11. TheRadicalModerate says:

    One other random thought: If you’re really worried about an AI apocalypse, you not only need a lifeboat; you also need one that’s completely air-gapped (or space-gapped) from any contact with Earth. Otherwise, the AI is likely to climb into the lifeboat’s systems and do away with everybody.

  12. TheRadicalModerate says:

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) There’s a massive amount of path-dependence built into either approach. Neither is likely to begin as an organized, international policy. So the question is whether you can start with an off-world or terrestrial settlement that’s nowhere near self-sufficient but has some modest economic utility, then sustainably grow it until it’s what you’re looking for.

    On this axis, I think an offworld base, morphing to a settlement, and finally morphing to a colony, probably has more economic draw than a terrestrial system, simply because the terrestrial tech tech isn’t good for anything, while there are, contrary to what’s written above, semi-decent economic cases for small-scale off-world systems that can start enough of a virtuous circle to scale up. But, even if you’re looking at close to a hundred years before there’s anything like the scale needed for self-sufficiency in space, there’s never going to be a non-policy economic reason to scale the terrestrial version.

    That said, I agree that we don’t quite have the infrastructure in place to get even minimal commercial human space operations up and running yet. But the needed government support to build that infrastructure is likely under $20B. With lower launch costs, we’re really, really close.

    2) Neither system should ever be thought of as a closed system. Instead, there are simply systems that have smaller or larger logistical problems.

    Assuming you manage to get enough industrial policy in place to do a terrestrial system (see #1), it has massive logistical advantages, because you at least have access to all the elements needed for a terrestrial ecosystem. Off-world systems, as a practical matter, need access to all of those elements from a source where shipping them has a low enough delta-v that it’s not ridiculously expensive. Nitrogen and phosphorus spring to mind off the top of my head, but I’m sure you’ll find plenty of spots on the periodic table where it’s easy to find stuff on Earth, but it’s not viable to pay the 10 km/s extra penalty to export it to an off-world system. (BTW: I’m assuming that scoop-mining planetary atmospheres is really, really, really hard, and likely to incur even bigger delta-v penalties. I’m also going to assume that terrestrial space elevators aren’t going to be a thing any time soon.)

    It should be fairly obvious that, even if you salt the earth and oceans with dozens of curies/km^2 of fission products, raise the temperature 10-20℃, and infest every animal on Earth with some hideous zombie virus, Earth is still about 1000x more habitable than anywhere else in the solar system. You can filter out fission products, and provide air conditioning with abundant energy, quarantine the killer rabbits, and still have plenty of H2, O2, N2, C, P, and all the trace elements needed to sustain life, all accessible to somebody with a halfway-decent contamination suit. Off-world, not so much.

  13. Mark V Anderson says:

    I want to talk about my vision of how the Earth-bound lifeboats would work. No, I am not one of the collaborators, so this is very ad-hoc.

    Several commenters were wondering how these lifeboats would work. The ACC talked about support from governments, so how would they be self sustaining in the event of an X-event? Also, is this expected to be a separation of a small lifeboat colony from the rest of Earth life, so there society would go off in different directions?

    My thinking is that these lifeboats would be a series of experiments, much life the Habitats, to see if a group could be self sustaining. But with more than eight people — that can never result in a self sustaining colony. At first of course they would not be self sustaining, which is why they would need outside support. But the goal is to make them eventually self sustaining. I also think few would want to go off onto a life long time in one of these colonies. There would be maybe two year stints where you close up the environment and see if they can survive on their own. When the E-event occurs then you make sure the environment is closed and hopefully it is self sustaining by then, and then the people in the environment have to live on their own. So you’d go in for a two year stint, but it would also be possible that it would be lifelong if the bad thing occurs. Of course with new colonists every two years, it would be less resistant to some E-events, such as a pandemic, but it would likely work.

    I don’t see how this could possibly get govt funding long enough for it to work, so I think we’d need Musk types (or a broadly funded NGO) for it to happen.

  14. Mark V Anderson says:

    For me, this effort was most valuable in showing me that we really do need to have successful experiments of several year sustainability on Earth before we try it in space. Since the Habitats never quite worked, how will we make it work in space, where occupants don’t have the option of bailing out when things don’t work out? I suppose the occupants would try a whole lot harder to make it work when their lives are at stake, but I don’t think that is the correct way to go about living in space.

    So why haven’t there been more Habitat experiments? Elon Musk is talking about having colonies on Mars; maybe it should be tested on Earth first? I really do like that Musk is pushing this thing, because I think we do ultimately need to get off-planet to avoid these X-events. But maybe he is being too reckless about it? Will his experiment simply result in many dead Mars colonists?

  15. yildo says:

    I don”t perceive a significant difference between 100% of humanity going extinct and 99.97% of humanity going extinct (assuming a very optimistic 1 million survivors of 7 billion).. The concept of a species is an abstract fiction. On average, humanity will be extinct.

    The amount of money I would spend on getting from 0% survivorship to 0.03% survivorship is minuscule.

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      If 1 million people are left in a world that still has a functioning biosphere (or will eventually), they can reproduce again until they hit the Malthusian frontier of whatever resources are on the post-apocalypse earth. Of course, most of the current population won’t be in that future humanity, but that’s true of anything in the far future unless radical life-extension technologies get here soon.

  16. zzzzort says:

    The history of biosphere 2 is fascinating, and not just because of the unexpected appearance of Steve Bannon (the founders were less scientists and more experimental theater troupe). A good overview is here.

  17. John Schilling says:

    I agree with the overall assessment that terrestrial lifeboats are approximately as robust against the plausible range of X-risks and far more cost-effective for that purpose. But there is a psychological and political component that hasn’t been addressed.

    Most people probably do agree with the authors that “the human species is worth preserving”. But I don’t think most people strongly agree with this, except insofar as the human species includes themselves, their friends and family, their near-term descendants, and people like them. Aside from nerdy consequentialists, most people’s abstract concern for the survival of humanity goes way down as “humanity” expands outside of Dunbar’s number, farther in the future than their grandchildren, and away from their culture. Note that in the last regard, anyone who volunteers to live in an isolated lifeboat for most of their life in the name of X-risk survivalism is an extreme cultural outlier, Not One Of Us even if they do have the same skin color and speak the same language and no matter how many Happy Days reruns we stash in the lifeboat library.

    Most people also don’t much thing X-risks are a real thing worth considering, unless they are associated with political tribalism in which case it’s the politics and not the extinction that is the focus.

    So if you convince people that, first, some X-risk is worth paying attention to, and second, that your plan involves a few thousand nerdonauts surviving in a lifeboat while everyone they actually care about dies, the response is probably going to be about 20% “I suppose it is a good thing that some humans will survive” and 80% “what, so you nerds are going to run off to your nerdcave and leave us all to die, instead of fixing the problem that is probably your fault in the first place?”

    This may give space colonies a practical edge in that they are A: unreachably distant from crowds of people who will predictably and understandably want to either break into for their own sake or destroy out of spite, and more importantly B: easier to disguise as being Important Scientific Research Outposts or Stepping Stones to Mankind’s Future in Space or whatnot, and so arrange to have funded and built in the first place.

    But that only works if there is a plausible reason to colonize space other than X-risk mitigation, and if you don’t go around saying how it’s really about the X-risks (yes, I’m looking at you, Elon). We probably shouldn’t colonize space to mitigate X-risks, that’s what Antarctica is for, but when we get around to colonizing space for other reasons we should probably put a little quiet thought into how to harden some of the colonies against X-risks. And if a few marginal investors quietly push space colonies over the edge into economic viability because of their personal concern with X-risks, bully for them.

    • Randy M says:

      Very interesting, John. Do you have thoughts about what other reasons will be a viable reason? Resource extraction or scientific study in the outer solar system? Wanderlust? Competition? Weaponizing the orbital space?

      • John Schilling says:

        Weaponization for its own sake is a non-starter; I think we’ve discussed here before that space-based weapons for use against terrestrial targets are too inefficient to bother with. But whatever we do put in space, if it is of sufficient value, some people will want to steal or destroy and so other people will try to defend, and so weaponization may add a multiplier for whatever space activities we pursue for other purposes.

        Competition and/or scientific research on their own almost certainly won’t drive much more than robotic probes and flags-and-footprints, but they can also apply a multiplier effect to activities undertaken for other purposes. If China puts an ultimately unprofitable lithium mine on Mars, and brags about the science they did along the way, America may not be rigorous in the cost-effectiveness calculations it makes re the proposed American Mining Colony / Research Outpost What is Bigger and Better than the Chinese One. Also, relevant competition can occur among status-seeking billionaires as much as among governments.

        Resource extraction, specialty manufacturing, and various forms of wanderlust (particularly including tourism) are the likely near-term prime movers for space settlement. Resource extraction is not limited to resources intended for consumption on Earth; if the LEO Hilton needs a hundred tons of fresh water per day, it actually turns out to be energetically preferable to get that from any of several extraterrestrial sources than from Earth – and if some of that owkwa turns into a fine Cerean single-malt whisky along the way, Earther tourists will probably pay top dollar for that. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s proposed 42,000 communications satellites are going to need fuel at the very least.

        But if you’re trying to bootstrap a human extraterrestrial economy from scratch, things that you can directly sell for $bignum on Earth, like platinum, may have an advantage in credibility with investors. Likewise tourism ventures that can be entirely supported from Earth. Crosslinking these elements to produce an intraspace economy comes later.

    • zzzzort says:

      I disagree that you can convince people to care about humanities extinction. People sign up for military even in large, multicultural countries; it seems the same proximate reasons would work for being a lifeboat participant (especially for terrestrial lifeboats where the trip isn’t one way).

      Completely agree about the immediate post apocalyptic political problems.

  18. John Schilling says:

    Considering a Martian city would need to rely on the same closed system technology as Biosphere 2, It seems that a necessary first step for a permanent community on Mars would be to demonstrate the ability to develop a reliable, sustainable, and safe closed system.

    Why? Mars has trillions of tons of air, water, and assorted useful minerals, and it doesn’t (yet) have stupid ideologues saying “we must achieve One Hundred Percent Closure, or Gaia will punish us for our impurity”. For most of the problems that bedeviled Biosphere 2, the correct solution will almost certainly be something like “OK, go pump another hundred tons of Martian air through the processing plant”.

    The Biospherian insistence on 100% closure has, I think, set back popular understanding of long-duration life support by at least a generation. Fortunately, there are people doing more sensible work in the field albeit with less publicity.

  19. Bugmaster says:

    I absolutely agree that self-sustaining space colonization is a great idea; but, as of right now, it’s a great idea on par with Alcubierre drives, self-replicating molecular nanotechnology, and biological immortality. That is to say, it’s not impossible in principle, but in practice no one knows how to even begin advancing toward it. Assuming I’m right, what’s the point of discussing it ?

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      I think Elon Musk has a ton of ideas about how to begin advancing towards it. To the extent he would consider it worthwhile to listen to the opinions of us mere mortals, I vote for having the discussion.

      Also, if he ever asks for volunteers it would be good to have educated willing ones, or a conspicuous lack thereof to as a signal the other way.

      Also, it’s entertaining as a fun intellectual exercise? Like, I don’t spend thaaaaat much time thinking about what I would do if God Emperor, but it’s still pretty disproportionate to the likelihood I will ever be in that position.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Well, yes, I agree that speculating about science-fictional scenarios is fun. But IMO no one, not even Elon Musk, is anywhere close to bridging that gap between fantasy and reality. Launching a Tesla into orbit is nowhere near as hard as setting up a self-sustaining off-world colony.

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        Ah, you and your goal posts!

        in practice no one knows how to even begin advancing toward it.

        is a much stronger claim than

        no one, not even Elon Musk, is anywhere close to bridging that gap between fantasy and reality

        I don’t think we’re farther away from setting up space colonies than we were from landing on the moon when we first started debating whether or not it was a good idea in any meaningful way.

      • yildo says:

        Given Musk’s terrible wishful thinking about transportation (hyperloop is categorically worse and less efficient than conventional high speed rail, electric car tunnels are categorically worse and less efficient than conventional subways), I’m not as willing as you to give him credence on his wishful thinking about space.

    • John Schilling says:

      Assuming I’m right, what’s the point of discussing it?

      You’re not night; we know how to begin advancing towards it, and have in fact begin advancing towards it. Often in stupid clumsy ways to be sure, but we’re learning.

      More to the point, we know at least in principle how to finish advancing towards it. Unlike warp drives, there’s no “and here a miracle occurs” steps requiring negative matter or whatnot, nothing that requires unknown science as opposed to just difficult engineering. The engineering may be difficult enough that it’s not worth the cost, but that’s a quantitative question and one we can address with real math.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I suppose that depends on what you mean by “advancing”. Technically, discovering fire is a step towards exo-colonies, but there are quite a few more steps in between.

        We currently have a way of reliably (more or less) launching satellites into orbit. We can send relatively small robotic probes to other planets, and have them work as expected more than half the time. We even have humans living part-time in an orbital station.

        We do not have any way of sending a single human to another planet, even temporarily (getting to the Moon is LosTech at this point). But you are not talking about a single human visitor; you’re talking about a permanent, self-sustaining colony. It’s easy to say “just build some solar panels, hydroponics bays, algae vats, and autonomous robotic miners, then you’re done”; but it’s also easy to say “just create enough negative mass and you’ve got FTL”. I agree that the laws of physics, at least, do not appear to prohibit lunar colonies; but the scientific and technological advances that would be required to build them are still far in the future.

        • John Schilling says:

          I suppose that depends on what you mean by “advancing”.

          You did set the bar at warp drives and immortality pills.

          We do not have any way of sending a single human to another planet, even temporarily

          Yes, but in roughly the same sense that we do not have any way of building a 300-story skyscraper. There are no approved architectural drawings for such a thing. There will almost certainly be “huh, that didn’t work out as well as we thought it would” moments along the way. But there is no doubt that if we hire a team of competent architects and engineers and give them full funding, they will build something that works and in no more than a decade. The problems are well understood no new technology is required, the raw materials and manufacturing processes and most of the piece parts are commercially available. The principle difference from prior experience is one of scale and cost.

          And that’s for basically all elements of space exploration, at Columbus or Mayflower levels of scale and risk. We’d obviously like to get both the cost and risk down from where they are now, so I don’t actually recommend a 10-year crash program for Mars colonies.

          300-story skyscrapers, Mars colony transport ships, warp drives, and immortality pills are all in the “theoretically possible but we don’t have blueprints for that” category, but two of these things are at one extreme edge of that category, and two are at the other.

  20. sclmlw says:

    There are three major problems with the concept of a ‘lifeboat’, to my mind:

    1. On water, lifeboats take you back to shore or preserve your life until you’re rescued by another ship. However, a sufficiently isolated terrestrial colony capable of riding out something like a nuclear war would also have to be so isolated that it would be difficult for them to return and recapitulate civilization. Maybe they’d figure out through radio and other passively received transmissions that something went wrong, but how are they supposed to know it’s safe enough to return – assuming we left them a way to get back to the affected land masses?

    For a space-based colony these problems are only compounded. How do you get back from a Europa lifeboat without any assistance from Earth, and how would you know when it’s safe to do so if all life and communication on Earth has ceased? Do you guess, and then if it’s not time yet you wasted your one trip and can’t get back to the lifeboat?

    2. This brings me to the second problem of what good is a lifeboat if you have to live in it forever? Absent a clear strategy for return, the lifeboat concept is really just about finding a place for a subset of humans to live in perpetuity, cut off from all other humans. This is tantamount to advocating a split in the human race. Sure, it would take a long time for evolutionary forces to take over (even zooed evolution), but isn’t that the point? If the project goes from ‘preserve humanity’ to ‘create a fork of humanity we hope will survive if this one doesn’t’ does it have the same imperative?

    3. How do you isolate a group of people enough to make this plan feasible – especially on Earth? Public funding implies there’s a public record that the project took place. It might not become a political target, but it will become a target of conspiracy theorists and any crazy nut-job dictator who wants to make a point. If, somehow, we found a way to forget about these humans we stashed somewhere in the Solar System, aren’t we just going to find them again? Humanity has a long track record of looking under every rock it can. Maybe we don’t find it right away, but chances are we’ll still find it. Possibly by the next group of humans trying to create (and then forget about) a lifeboat.

    “This is a good place to hide a lifeboat!”
    “Actually, it’s already taken.”

    • Dacyn says:

      They wouldn’t accidentally run into each other unless they’d grown to populate an area comparable to the size of the planet. And I think that very sparse interaction events are not enough to completely negate the value of separation.

    • Randy M says:

      2. This brings me to the second problem of what good is a lifeboat if you have to live in it forever? Absent a clear strategy for return, the lifeboat concept is really just about finding a place for a subset of humans to live in perpetuity, cut off from all other humans.

      Yep.

      This is tantamount to advocating a split in the human race. Sure, it would take a long time for evolutionary forces to take over (even zooed evolution), but isn’t that the point? If the project goes from ‘preserve humanity’ to ‘create a fork of humanity we hope will survive if this one doesn’t’ does it have the same imperative?

      I think so. After all, as parents we sacrifice for children that are only half us. It is interesting to consider the reemergence of the mole people after they’ve decided they’re done being back ups for a humanity they’ve surpassed, though. Brings to mind the societies of The Time Machine.

  21. Ghillie Dhu says:

    Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe and Lao-Tzu, Einstein, Morobuto, Buddy Holly, Aristophanes .. and all of this .. all of this was for nothing unless we go to the stars.

    The question can only be when, not if.

  22. Randy M says:

    I feel like I need to take a moment to point out that that was not a typo, and the quote above is provided by ​that​ Steve Bannon. I don’t know what else to say about that other than to acknowledge how weird it is (very).

    Huh. Well, it’s a small world.

    I enjoyed your piece, but unfortunately didn’t learn that any of my suppositions about space travel were wrong, to whit, it’s expensive and unlikely to actually benefit anyone other than terrestrial based rocket engineers and so forth.

    My one criticism is that I feel you need more discussion of how the relatively small lifeboats outlined would be sufficient to prevent many of the presented X-risks. I can see it maybe helping to rebuild after a plague, assuming they had a few months of stored food for everyone and were hermetically sealed and the political will existed inside and out not the breach the quarantine for the sake of photogenic moppets outside the walls and so forth.

    But unless I’m missing something, it’s still largely dependent on the Earth, no? They can’t grow sufficient food there to feed everyone year round a complete diet, can they? Making them vulnerable to any civilization wreaking disasters, as well obviously as any planet wreaking ones. I think the same complaint can be levied against it as the space bound ones–the cost to be fully functional (complete ecosystem, hardened security) is too much for the amount of risk it actually mitigates, especially given the hardships involved. It doesn’t work if it’s not manned and sealed constantly.

  23. eric23 says:

    I don’t see a clear discussion of which existential risks only apply to ground-based colonies and which to space-based too, and why, and what are the relative chances and impacts of these risks.

    That should be the core of the argument, and without it I must say that I didn’t learn anything of value from this collaboration.

    • inhibition-stabilized says:

      I’m with you on this one, especially since the choice of which X-risks to harden a lifeboat against can drastically change its cost.

      Some other points I would have liked to see more discussion of:

      If the problem of funding stability is as significant as the authors think it is, I think it deserves to be elaborated in a bit more depth. Other commenters have made several interesting points (it seems to prove too much; it implies a selection effect for dictatorships, which have more stable funding levels), and there are probably other arguments we haven’t thought of yet. It’s of course unreasonable to expect the authors to come up with every possible counterargument, but the discussion in the essay does not seem like enough.

      While space colonies are vastly more expensive than terrestrial lifeboats, the authors don’t fully discuss the potential benefits of space travel which could all serve to help fund the enterprise (scientific research, asteroid mining, tourism, retirement homes for the ultra-wealthy, reality TV [although of course that one went about as poorly as most people expected], etc). In fact, many people already want and are working towards space colonies, while the same can’t be said about terrestrial lifeboats. So while space colonies may be more expensive, there seems to be much more political and public desire for them. Cost isn’t the only dimension to feasibility.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      This was confusing for me as well.

  24. Aapje says:

    The graph of risks seems a bit unimaginative. It lacks such things as cultural collapse, overpopulation, oppressive world governance, wireheading and bureaucratic stasis. Note that it was not just the extinction of humanity that was defined as an X-risk, but also ‘drastically curtail its potential.’

    The most concrete steps that have been taken so far that mitigate against X-risks would be the creation of organisations like the UN, intended to disincentivize warmongering behaviour and reward cooperation.

    IMO, this statement merely reflects the biases of the authors. Some risks increase due to having more globalization and some decrease.

    For example, the current conflict between the West and China is spurring both on to not depend on each other’s technology, increasing diversity, which decreases certain risks.

    To conclude, we decided that terrestrial and off-planet lifeboats offer very similar amounts of protection from x-risks, with off-planet solutions adding a small amount additional protection in certain scenarios whilst being markedly more expensive than a terrestrial equivalent, with additional risks and unknowns to the construction process.

    I wonder to what extent terrestrial lifeboats actually offer a serious advantage over not having them. I just don’t see too many scenario’s where they would save us/civilization.

    • Dacyn says:

      That should be “permanently and drastically curtail its potential”: cultural collapse and bureaucratic stasis seem recoverable. And I would expect overpopulation to lead to people dying off and therefore be self-correcting.

  25. NoRandomWalk says:

    A terrestrial lifeboat could end up being easily discontinued and abandoned if funding/political will failed, whereas a space colony would be very difficult to abandon due to the astronomical (​pun intended​) expense of transporting every colonist back. … To be clear, the advocate for terrestrial lifeboats considers this single point sufficient to decide the debate in its entirety and concedes the debate without reservation.

    Isn’t this an argument that proves too much? Let’s do prohibitively expensive things, because even though it becomes vanishingly unlikely multiple sessions of parliament will continue to fund its completion, on the flipside it becomes vanishingly unlikely multiple sessions of parliament will have the resolve to fund its demolition!

    I think several analogies could be made to interminable military conflicts in recent times, mass economic structural change (not just state control of industries), branches of game theory as it applies to diplomacy, that are all influenced by the concept ‘if you commit super hard, the sunk cost fallacy will guarantee you come out ahead!’ that, in practice, have turned out in ways that I think would discourage this line of thinking in the future.

    • Aapje says:

      Indeed. That argument hinges on the space colony being either self-sustaining or self-funding. If it regularly needs expensive shipments, it may be seen as prohibitively expensive to keep it going.

    • Nicholas says:

      There are two points here:

      1. If the space colony needs costly support and resupply from earth on a regular basis, what happens when x-risk hits earth? Also, by the way, same question for terrestrial lifeboat.

      2. Retrieving all space colonists isn’t the only failure mode available to earth based governments looking at the hefty price tag. Very generously they might simply withhold supplies until the entire colony gets sterilized, which would gracefully sunset the enterprise, but I could easily see more dramatic approaches being taken .

    • Dacyn says:

      The argument does seem to rely on a strong distancing of the person doing the arguing away from the political system they are a part of. Essentially they are suggesting that the system do something which, considered “from the system’s perspective”, has no logical motivation. Obviously you can ask many questions about this such as: is the system really so dysfunctional that we need to do this? is it even ethical to do this? do we need to hide our motives from others when advocating that the system do this?

  26. NoRandomWalk says:

    Clearly written, thanks for all the hard work. Really liked the exploration of whether on-world/off-world colonies are substitutes, or if on-world colonies are a prerequisite.

    One thing I would have liked to see more discussion of though, is what are the opportunity costs of off-world colonies, and who would agree to live in them?

    For different definitions of ‘closed environment’ (closed to technology, closed to communication, closed to biological exchange (i.e. people getting bored or lonely or disillusioned with lifestyle and wanting to go home, or accepting new people; new plants, etc), the likelihood that we would have both the political will to fund them and the willing population to ‘be them’ is quite different, as is the effectiveness for different types of x-risk.

    Also, should we be building ‘any’ space colonies for that price tag? I get that any hard numbers would be ‘demolished’ by internet commenters, but as someone who knowing nothing is happy to believe anything it would have been nice to at least see a list of ‘if you’re concerned about x-risk, Important People in The Field think These Other Things could also be done, and compared to the Y that an offworld colony might cost these would cost Z; if only to provide more branches that people could grab to join the conversation.

    • Randy M says:

      One thing I would have liked to see more discussion of though, is what are the opportunity costs of off-world colonies, and who would agree to live in them?

      Obviously extremely high trade-offs for the individuals, assuming we cannot casually return to Earth due to the costs in time and money of space travel, which I expect will remain high for the foreseeable future.

      It’s possible there could be some kind of rotating shift, where people live there for a year or so and then switch out, which wouldn’t be that bad.

      But the individual would be giving up personally experiencing all the beauty and adventure on Earth, and also missing out on interacting with any new people, and be under unique psychological stress.
      On the other hand, electronic entertainment is pretty good, and if I were to be honest, I could probably recreate a good portion of my life in an enclosed colony.

  27. kalika says:

    I am one of the ones who is not really clear on why we should want to avoid extinction (after our own personal demise, of course). I was hoping someone who agrees that we should try to avoid it can clarify for me what the net benefit would be to the universe, or the planet, or all sentient beings, for humanity to continue. Obviously I cherish my family and my own life. But selfishness aside, humanity appears to be an unmitigated disaster for the rest of the sentient community.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      Well, I simply prefer a more interesting universe. You can define it as “with concentrations of low entropy” if you want something more rigorous, but basically just take the continuum made of hydrogen, rocks, plants, animals and go in the same direction. Farther is better.

      • Andaro says:

        “with concentrations of low entropy”

        That also describes the worst dystopias imaginable, in which you personally probably wouldn’t want to live. Perhaps we should be more economical than that, especially if it costs a lot of money and everybody expects it to be funded through taxation.

        • Radu Floricica says:

          I tried to get into this but I deleted that part – long story short, it would have to be a pretty horrible dystopia before I prefer oblivion. And people have an annoying tendency of ignoring the null hypotheses so I was afraid of comments like “how can you support a lifestyle that…”. Probably the wrong place to be careful, true.

      • Well, I simply prefer a more interesting universe.

        I agree, but it’s possible the universe where Rogue AI takes over might be the more interesting universe.

        • Radu Floricica says:

          I’m a monkey, and I’m going to fight for my tribe existence. Nothing wrong about that – after all the will to fight is part of what makes the victor worthy. Rocks don’t have any.

          But yeah, I’d much prefer a rogue AI to nothing. Also it’s “rogue” only from our point of view. Perhaps calling it Varelse is better?

        • I’m a monkey, and I’m going to fight for my tribe existence. Nothing wrong about that – after all the will to fight is part of what makes the victor worthy. Rocks don’t have any.

          Right. That’s the actual answer to “why we should want to avoid extinction”. Reason and evidence can only extrapolate from an initial axiom. We have faith because we have faith. Eventually it does come down to picking a side just coz.

    • inhibition-stabilized says:

      Some brief thoughts on why one should not prefer extinction:

      Parochial: I care for the rest of humanity in the same way I care for my family, just to a lesser degree. Likewise, I would prefer a universe containing beings roughly similar to me to one without them, even if they are transcendent post-humans. (This point probably won’t change your mind if you don’t already believe it, but it’s useful to note because this is probably the true reason most people would prefer non-extinction.)

      Utilitarian: It’s very easy to point out all the bad humanity has done, but I think it’s still true that life is worth living for most people. Some other animals might prefer non-existence due to our actions (like chickens, as the previous AC argues), but there’s a good argument to be made that human experience is richer than that of other conscious animals. We seem to be “more sentient” than most, so the value placed on our preferences and happiness should probably be correspondingly higher. Finally, we have a tremendous potential for future happiness and preference satisfaction, and it’s even possible that we’ll someday stop torturing other animals in the process.

      Personal: You have no way of knowing that any of these X-risks won’t occur during your own life or during the lives of your children, so you should take steps to reduce their probability even disregarding the rest of humanity. And if despite these efforts a catastrophe does occur, there is a non-zero probability that you or a family member or friend survives if lifeboats exist, and a roughly zero probability if they don’t.

      • Andaro says:

        The utilitarian argument is weak to opportunity cost counter-arguments: It’s plausibly more cost-effective to make hedonium or other utilitarian tiling-solutions, either directly through goal-driven investment/charity or indirectly through promotion. I’m not a utilitarian, but if I were, I would focus on these solutions instead of x-risk, which comes with huge suffering/disutility costs while also being less neglected (Hero saves the world is a high status pop-culture trope).

        The personal argument just doesn’t apply to lifeboats, unless you’re planning to live in one. For almost everyone else, it just means we pay for your lifeboat while gaining no risk reduction.

        • inhibition-stabilized says:

          I know I didn’t do any of these arguments justice in my post, and your points are valid.

          Regarding the utilitarian argument: I’m not really utilitarian either, but it seems the original poster is, so I was trying to make a utilitarian argument. I was mainly just arguing here that one should prefer non-extinction to extinction for utilitarian reasons, without going into what actions one should or shouldn’t take to satisfy that preference. However, I think there probably are still reasons a utilitarian would want to fund X-risk mitigation. X-risks are very low probability, but (assuming one puts a positive value on human existence) their impact is astronomical. If we avoid extinction events humanity could survive for millions or even billions of years, with an almost unlimited potential for future hedonium; that would all disappear if we went extinct now.

          Regarding the personal argument: again, point taken. Other commenters have discussed, though, that it may be more practical to prepare some supplies for a terrestrial lifeboat ahead of time and only load people in and seal the doors if there looks to be an imminent risk. In this scenario, even if you wouldn’t want to seal yourself in a lifeboat right now, there’s a non-zero probability you might end up in one and survive if an extinction event occurs, and a zero probability if they don’t exist. Of course, there certainly may be many more cost-effective ways of mitigating X-risk than lifeboats: my overall goal with this post was not to argue in favor of lifeboats per se, rather to argue in favor of non-extinction.

        • Dacyn says:

          This ignores astronomical waste though. To an additive utilitarian, none of those things matter much in comparison to what will happen in the long run, which is nothing if we don’t take care of X-risk.

          (And I don’t see anything in u/kalika’s post to indicate they’re in favor of hedonium)

          • Andaro says:

            X-risk reduction isn’t the only way to affect the long run; if you can increase the percentage of future resources dedicated to hedonium (or other tiling solutions), this affects the long run as well. There aren’t only two possible outcomes, “nothing happens” and “something good but fixed happens”.

            “(And I don’t see anything in u/kalika’s post to indicate they’re in favor of hedonium)”

            I responded to inhibition-stabilized’s utilitarian argument. But kalika did mention “all sentient beings”, which opens itself up for tiling solutions almost regardless how you define your values. (Again, I’m not agreeing with this philosophy.)

          • Dacyn says:

            Hmm. I suppose it depends on how likely you think we are to survive if we don’t worry about X-risk.

    • lunawarrior says:

      But selfishness aside, humanity appears to be an unmitigated disaster for the rest of the sentient community.

      How do you know there is a “rest of the sentient community”? My understanding is that there is a very real possibility that humanity is it as far as sentient life goes, at least anywhere near by.

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      But selfishness aside, humanity appears to be an unmitigated disaster for the rest of the sentient community.

      Are you counting animals as sentient, and claiming that humanity makes life significantly worse for most animals?

    • sovietKaleEatYou says:

      The argument that works best for me is that our culture (and sentience more generally) existing in this universe is an extension of self. There is not much linking a person at two different points in time other than a continuity of experience and memory. Weaker continuities such as culture and shared humanity are a weak form of this, to the extent that I believe that the metaphorical “great writers live forever” has a little bit of truth to it

    • sidereal says:

      The rest of what sentient community? As far as I can see we are it. And it quite plausibly is just barren rocks and stars out there.

      • kalika says:

        Thanks to everyone for contributing your perspectives for me on why we should try to avoid extinction, I appreciate it. I see I am in a minority in my viewpoint that non-human animals and possibly the biosphere of Earth itself constitute sentient beings with a value potentially equal to the value of human sentience. I see no way to disprove this from my own limited vantage point. The beauty and grace of the natural world absent human intervention seems inherently valuable. I don’t think that human intelligence and enjoyment is necessarily the highest good in the universe. It could be, but my perspective on this is necessarily biased by my human viewpoint. Even if human intelligence is the apex of intelligence, is our experience then necessarily more valuable than the experiences of thousands of other species all facing extinction because of our actions? Maybe, but why? It could simply be our bias that makes us think that our type of conscious experience is “richer” or more valuable. Who knows what goes on in the minds of dolphins or apes or whales? And drawing on the ideas of the prior AC re: vegetarianism and the relative weights of conscious experience for non-human animals, would the richness of the human conscious experience alone outweigh the value of all the non-human experiences, in their combined variety, which will be lost forever in the current human created mass extinction? Should we strive to unleash this killing power to the rest of the universe, where there are potentially other biospheres with their own rich tapestries of consciousness which we could destroy by using them for our own purposes like we are doing here? To me, there is not enough evidence that we are worthy, as a species, of inflicting that kind of risk on the rest of the universe, whatever it turns out to contain.

        I appreciate that we are tribal primates programmed to want to survive and to me that seems the most honest reason to support the premise, though I don’t think it holds much ethical weight on a rational level. I’m not in favor of going extinct, but I don’t think we are so special that it would be a tragedy to anyone other than ourselves if we do, and I suspect it would open up possibilities for richness and beauty which are currently foreclosed by human domination of the planet.

  28. a reader says:

    A terrestrial lifeboat could end up being easily discontinued and abandoned if funding/political will failed, whereas a space colony would be very difficult to abandon due to the astronomical (​pun intended​) expense of transporting every colonist back. A return trip for even a relatively modest number of colonists would require billions of dollars allocated over several years, by, most importantly, multiple sessions of a congress or parliament. This creates a paradigm where a terrestrial lifeboat, while being less expensive and in many ways more practical, could never be a long term guarantor of human survival do to its ease of decommissioning (as was seen in the Biosphere 2 incident).

    If a terrestrial lifeboat is to be successful, that would mean i it is self-sufficient and hard to destroy, so after that point cutting funding wouldn’t matter.

    But it seems that dictatorships (like China) are more apt than liberal democracies to create terrestrial lifeboats – their political will and available funding oscilate less. So that will be the kind of civilization that will survive…

    • Radu Floricica says:

      Concrete yes, but anything else can be recycled. Including, first of all, people.

      But I think this can also be the best argument for local life boats. With enough funding and political will they can be built in very little time. Probably one month is the right order of magnitude, if you allow for the fact that multiple nations will attempt and some will fail. There are people in this world that can sketch the plans for something like this in one afternoon, and you just need containment and raw materials to be built from the beginning – the rest can be done after sealing. For example just cram supplies and people in a cave or mine system, then seal it up. Some will succeed, some will fail, but it can be done in a matter of days and you can do it in many many places at once.

      Which leads to a pretty obvious extremely cheap plan B. Make just the plans for something like this – what you need, where you can get it from, how would the chain of command look like to do it fast. And if there are any blockers in advance (I don’t expect mobile CO2 scrubbing machines are just lying around everywhere, for instance) prepare them and only them in advance. If at all possible, just maintain an up to date list of their locations. There, a 99.9999% saving, with probably better results given how much more scalable this is.

  29. Konstantin says:

    First of all, in the graph climate change should be all the way to the right, as it is already happening and probably won’t be reversed.

    Second, one good place for a closed system that hasn’t been mentioned is the bottom of the ocean. We already have a lot of the technology, nuclear submarines can stay underwater indefinitely, with the limiting factor being food for the crew, and it is isolated and protected from natural disasters. Granted, you do have the risk of the colony collapsing due to excessive libertarianism especially if Steve Bannon is involved.

    • Grantford says:

      I suspect that climate change wasn’t placed all the way to the right because they meant to represent the likelihood that climate change would be an existential risk, not just the likelihood of it happening and having negative consequences that don’t rise to the level of existential threat.

  30. An Fírinne says:

    There is no reason a major nation couldn’t develop a lifeboat on their own, but considering the benefits of diversity, smaller nations should be encouraged to develop their own projects through UN funding and support. A UN committee made up of culturally diverse nations could be charged with examining grant proposals using the above criteria.

    You lost me there, symbolic and useless things like diversity for its own sake is a dangerous idea and a safety hazard.

    Don’t get me wrong we need voices from around the globe so that the most powerful nations don’t hog it all for themselves but that’s a whole other thing to token diversity. We need practical diversity, not head-in-the-sky diversity.

    • Randy M says:

      Yeah, but if complaints about diversity get us redundancy, it’s getting something.

    • whereamigoing says:

      Why isn’t smaller nations developing their own versions of lifeboats “practical diversity”? I fully agree that the way SJWs use the word “diversity” is stupid, if that’s what you’re referring to, but I think there could be gains in robustness by making the projects more independent. For example, a system developed in Japan by Japanese people might be non-trivially different from a system developed in the US by Americans, such that some risks might prove fatal to the American system but not the Japanese system, or vice versa.

      • Clutzy says:

        Because international funding is historically impractical. The quote literally invokes the UN! The least effective organization of the last century.

        • whereamigoing says:

          Ah, I see. I should have read the quote more carefully. Yeah, if you want diversity, don’t do it through a UN committee in the first place — just have separate nations develop their own lifeboats independently.

  31. I think this convincingly argues that terrestrial biodomes will be superior to space habitats in the near term. Though I don’t think there was much doubt about that, it’s nice to get some sense of the scale difference involved. Can’t say I agree with some of the X-risks, such as “grey goo”, which is probably physically impossible, but that’s a minor detail.

    I’m very much in support of expanding biosphere research in general, precisely because it makes a good precursor and testbed for extraplanetary habitation. First you make a closed system, and see how long you can run it for, then you put it on top of a mountain and do the same thing with greater restrictions on the ability to supply from the outside, then as you build confidence and technology, you will slowly need less frequent interventions. Then finally you can do the same thing on the Moon, and once we have had a Moon base for decades, then we can try for a Mars colony. In lieu of this UN grant plant, I hope someone can reach out to Elon Musk and get him to put some funding aside for biospheres.

    • tohron says:

      The viability of a “gray goo” scenario depends on what you consider to be gray goo. If you imagine a nano-engineered quasi-organism that spreads 20% faster than kudzu and can use common metals as a raw material, that’s a plausible concern in a hypothetical future. The classic scenario of a grey tide converting all objects into more of itself in seconds… less so.

  32. Aldabra says:

    Haha. When the money runs out they’ll abandon the space colony *anyway*. They’ll tell the audience on earth that it’s self-sustaining now, and then the comms link will go down. The flip side of that question is: as a volunteer colonist, would you rather be abandoned on earth or Mars?

    • Randy M says:

      Depends on whether the doors lock from the inside or the outside, I guess.
      I’d rather be reintroduced into Earth society than slowly die on Mars from rickets or scurvy or something.

    • Grantford says:

      A truly self-sustaining colony wouldn’t be hurt by removal of funding, since it’s built to withstand the fall of civilization, which would incidentally result in a lack of external funding. Although I suppose that your concern could still apply if money ran out quickly in the early stages of the project, before the colony became self-sustaining.

  33. Xammer says:

    “I feel like I need to take a moment to point out that that was not a typo, and the quote above is provided by ​that​ Steve Bannon. I don’t know what else to say about that other than to acknowledge how weird it is (very).

    As our friend Steve “Darth Vader” Bannon points out”

    I feel like I’m missing an inside joke here.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      It’s this Steve Bannon, currently best known for his former running of far-right/alt-right website Breitbart News, and his former role with the Trump presidential campaign and administration, basically (AIUI) being, like, the person involved with some sort of actual ideology.

      But while he’s currently best known for politics, he’s done a number of other things as well, such as his involvement with Biosphere 2. He’s had a pretty interesting life, seems like…

      • keaswaran says:

        Whoa, I assumed they were making jokes about the similar name – I didn’t realize that it was actually the same person!

  34. imoimo says:

    I found this vastly more readable than the other ACC submissions so far. The reasoning was very linear and conversational, I never felt overloaded with data or arguments, and by the end I knew where each author stood on the issue.

    I am suspicious of the unsourced x-risk image near the beginning, particularly because I can’t tell what the units of the axes are supposed to be. I guess 1-10, but is that just relative to each other?

    Otherwise this collab helped me frame the issue. Focusing on Biosphere 2 seemed smart since that is in essence what Mars will have to be, only harder. I wouldn’t mind having an overview of current prospects for forming a biosphere on Mars, but that field is still young and that could have derailed the conversation a bit, so I don’t mind that it was excluded.

    Lastly, I admire that the collaborators found a crux and resolved it. I agree that the long term political fragility of terrestrial lifeboats seems like a dealbreaker.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      Even more than the debates I found fascinating the points on which the pairs agreed.

      I think every one so far had some pretty outstanding ones. I liked best how the meat eating one decided from the beginning to compare farming animals with non-existence, whereas most vegetarian arguments I’ve heard seem to take it for granted that there is no such thing as a benefit from existing as a farmed animal (even though they don’t make it explicit).

    • Loris says:

      Regarding that graph-
      In standard probability terminology, risks are given on a scale of 0..1, where 1 is ‘guaranteed’. Obviously you can extend for multiple independent events above that as the average of a Poisson distribution – so the chart seems to expect about a 50% chance of an asteroid impact, one and a half supervolcanos, 3 pandemics and 9½ full-on nuclear wars in the next 200 years. Yikes!

      OK no, but it amused me.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      Lastly, I admire that the collaborators found a crux and resolved it. I agree that the long term political fragility of terrestrial lifeboats seems like a dealbreaker.

      This is the one part I don’t quite understand. A terrestrial lifeboat, by which I mean a fully successful lifeboat done right, could exist in some out of the way place independent or overlooked by national governments in chaos. The conclusion there shocked me, because a successfully self-sufficient Terran colony might live underground, in Antarctica, in the desert, and become independent of any outside funding. (Granted that would be VERY difficult to achieve)

      • imoimo says:

        I think the reasoning was that it will take a long time before 100% independence is reached. Emergencies will happen. With terrestrial colonies these emergencies will boost political support for “cancel the colony, it’s a waste of money and isn’t even self-supporting.” With off-world colonies that’s not feasible since it takes decades and lots of money to bring back Mars colonists, and letting them die is unlikely to ever get popular. Mars is still way harder to help in emergencies, but it’s at least politically stable.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      I don’t really get the idea of terrestrial lifeboats.

      Those would have to be build at the bottom of the ocean or deep underground to make much sense. If the world is ending and there is one safe place in Arizona … that place wouldn’t stay safe for very much longer.

      It would basically have to be a sealed self-sustaining castle able to withstand military attack and major shocks to the planet. That’s not going to have costs comparable to a normal big building.

  35. Nicholas says:

    I’m curious why the terrestrial lifeboat advocate places such heavy emphasis on cultural diversity. Culture can be stored on hard drives and retrieved later. It would seem like genetic diversity should be prioritized in a microcosm of humanity who’s sole purpose is to be on-call to repopulate the species, no?

    • Aapje says:

      Culture can be stored on hard drives and retrieved later.

      That is not culture, but a record of culture. You can’t just turn that into a living culture.

      • Nicholas says:

        4,000 families is a relatively small community. Something terrible happens and they become trapped together for generations while the dust settles outside the lifeboat…. it seems highly improbable to me that those diverse cultures stay distinct and far more likely that some amalgam emerges as a monoculture. If you don’t have a plan (and a record) to reboot cultures when they get out, those cultures probably die anyway.

        • Aapje says:

          I agree that you can’t preserve distinct cultures in a small community, but you also can’t just reboot cultures. That’s not how it works.

          • Nicholas says:

            Culture is learned even though it’s not currently (for the most part) taught; I’m not sure it’s impossible to develop a curriculum though. In any event, it sounds like we both agree emphasizing cultural diversity in colonist selection is ill conceived?

          • whereamigoing says:

            As I understood it, the authors value having a different culture in each lifeboat, without thinking that multiple cultures can be preserved in a single lifeboat.

          • Aapje says:

            @Nicholas

            Plenty of attempts have been made to teach culture, for example, the Ancient Greek one, which used to be part of the Western European elite education. Yet it did little more than nudge people in that direction.

            Ultimately, you run into a chicken-egg problem where culture is largely implicitly taught by peers and parents, so you already need people who have internalized the culture to be able to teach the culture.

            Note that people’s view on culture is pretty always corrupted and influenced by their own culture, so if it was possible to implant an entire culture explicitly, what people would insert explicitly would surely be corrupted.

            For you other question, I agree with whereamigoing that it might work to seed different lifeboats differently. I do have my doubts whether a single organization could actually do that, but you might be able to do it by having nationalist organizations make an American lifeboat, Chinese one, French one, Indian one, etc.

    • Randy M says:

      My suspicions are that it would be for contemporary political reasons, that is, we don’t want to signal that we only value certain groups.
      Unless you are referring to benefits claimed from having multiple lifeboats? In which case I’d say there’s an advantage to having multiple approaches to problems faced during and after the quarantine period, though this doesn’t translate into needing to preserve any particular Earth cultures.

      • Milo Minderbinder says:

        The impression I got from the write up was that “diversity” would be achieved by the existence of lifeboats across the globe. Their populations are explicitly fluid when not in disaster mode, so presumably they’re assumed to be representative of the region (i.e., the population diversity of the, say, Boulder, CO and Beijing lifeboats would reflect the makeup of those areas when the bombs fell).

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      Let me guess: the culture we should send should be white people culture.

      • J Mann says:

        Nicholas’s response above an his original post suggests more that we should prioritize genetic diversity over culture, because diverse cultures are unlikely to remain so in sealed community of several thousand people.

        (I’m not saying Nicholas is right, since I haven’t really thought about it, but it doesn’t sound to me like he’s opposed to other cultures.)

      • abystander says:

        The culture that’s sent will be the culture that is paying for it. If it is the Chinese it will be Chinese culture.

    • souleater says:

      I am the terrestrial lifeboat advocate. Can I get a quick poll from the community/Scott if its appropriate to participate in the comments for your own AdColab?

      I agree the genetic diversity is very important from a survival perspective, but I believe that an emphasis on cultural diversity is necessary to generate sufficient international buy-in.

      • Randy M says:

        I am the terrestrial lifeboat advocate. Can I get a quick poll from the community/Scott if its appropriate to participate in the comments for your own AdColab?

        Yes, but further comments are not considered when deciding on how to vote. Anyhow, I believe it was the case in one of the other discussion threads already.

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        Yeah please do. I think it’s a much more worthwhile process if we can interact with the authors, who couldn’t know before publishing which sections a particular reader would find unclear/be interested in hearing more about.

      • Clutzy says:

        Meh. International buy in is actually going to decrease your cultural diversity. If you are taking people from LA, Hong Kong, DC, London, Paris, Berlin, etc you’re going to have a less functional and less diverse culture than if you just picked from Iowa. That is because you’ll end up with an amalgamation of internationalists. Scott’s “universal culture” idea, except only for the UN-phillic.

  36. sclmlw says:

    How did the economic argument completely miss asteroid mining? There’s a reason rare Earth metals are rare. They all sank deep into the Earth while it was forming. Where to find all these important resources? In asteroids!

    How much could you really make from asteroid mining? Here are the prices of a few rare Earth metals common to asteroids:
    Ruthenium=$250/ozt
    Palladium=$1,950/oz
    Platinum=$930/oz

    Now consider that we can mine each of these in asteroids by the ton. The haul on platinum alone would be enough to justify the colony, the other metals would be gravy. Of course, dumping a huge amount of rare metals onto the market would have unpredictable consequences for the price (it would drop, but then people find new uses for it, etc.) so the risk is high, which is part of the reason people haven’t tried it yet. But as the risk/cost ratio goes down, I expect this to become something that’s seriously discussed.

    Why harvest asteroids and bring them to somewhere like Mars? You can’t do Earth, because ‘stray asteroid’ is literally a civilization-ending x-risk. The moon is a little farther out there, but to be truly safe from incompetence or sociopaths, you need to be farther away, like on Mars.

    “Isn’t asteroid mining dangerous? You have to go out into an asteroid field!” Space is dangerous. As long as you’re out there, an asteroid field is infinitesimally more dangerous than that. Contrary to what you’ve seen in the media, if you were standing on an asteroid (and light sources weren’t an issue) chances are low that you would be able to see any other asteroids in your vicinity. There are two reasons for this: 1.) space is big and even lots of asteroids in a massive asteroid belt are dwarfed by the vastness of space, and 2.) any asteroids that come near each other tend to congregate due to gravity. So some asteroids are basically big clumps of gravel, floating around in space. Naturally, we’d want to avoid those for harvesting, since tidal forces near any large planetary body would tear them apart…

    So yes, there are challenges, but they’re far from insurmountable, at least from where we currently sit. And the rewards are massive.

    Once economic viability enters the equation, I’d see Earth and near-Earth attempts at creating self-sufficient systems as a stepping stone to larger – profitable – ventures deeper into the solar system.

    • Randy M says:

      I suspect it will be cheaper and more efficient to automate asteroid mining once we are able to do it at all, and so it doesn’t present any cost savings to have a nearby colony. At most, the technology developed to do the one will make the other slightly cheaper.

      • sclmlw says:

        If we can automate something as complex as asteroid mining without lots of engineers at or near the site we probably won’t need humans for anything anymore. Remember we can’t do remotely-piloted drones – even from Mars – because the time lag is too long. I suspect, especially in the early stages when we’re figuring things out, that a human presence will be required. And since the largest barrier is developing the technology to get people up there in a sustainable way, once we’re up there I suspect we’ll stay.

        • Randy M says:

          If this is the case we’ll get a colony of sort there for the work, and it will be necessity be short term sustainable, with the X-risk mitigation being a coincidental benefit.

          If we can automate something as complex as asteroid mining without lots of engineers at or near the site we probably won’t need humans for anything anymore.

          Stay tuned for ACC entry number 7, then: “Will automation lead to economic crisis?” by Doug S and Erusian

          But I’m envisioning something like a satellite to determine likely candidate rocks, then just launching it towards earth and perhaps taking it apart in orbit. Maybe that’s too close to causing X-risk, though.

          • sclmlw says:

            Yeah, I think your intuition that this would cause X-risk is on point. I imagine that scenario would end with the asteroid unexpectedly breaking up due to tidal forces near Earth and ending human life as we know it.

            Knowing that in advance, and knowing the savvy it would take to actually implement it, I assume the kind of people who would be capable of bring a civilization-ending asteroid near the Earth would be smart enough to just set up shop on Mars, or at least the Moon. (Probably Mars, though, since it’s safer.)

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Why harvest asteroids and bring them to somewhere like Mars? You can’t do Earth, because ‘stray asteroid’ is literally a civilization-ending x-risk. The moon is a little farther out there, but to be truly safe from incompetence or sociopaths, you need to be farther away, like on Mars.

      headdesk
      Dropping asteroids on Mars to mine their Rare Earth metals does nothing but make the process much more expensive. It would be far more efficient to do the mining in the asteroid belt itself. You would attach a space station with two habitat modules spinning for gravity 1.8 kilometers apart so robots can be tele-operated without light speed lag and refined metals would be loaded into the space station’s hub to be transported to Earth by spacecraft.

      • sclmlw says:

        I guess the issue is whether it’s easier to do in situ than it is to do it at an established base of operations. Mars doesn’t provide as much protection as Earth, but it’s better than nothing. Plus there’s water on Mars that can be used for fuel and other important purposes. You’re right that it takes resources to get to and from Mars, but escape velocity isn’t as much of a problem as Earth. Plus there’s no (meaningful) air resistance in space, so fuel costs are massively lower than they would be through atmosphere.

        • John Schilling says:

          I guess the issue is whether it’s easier to do in situ than it is to do it at an established base of operations.

          No, the issue is whether it is so much harder to do in situ as to outweigh the cost of moving an entire asteroid halfway across the inner solar system. Which, notwithstanding the fact that it takes only a sentence to describe and a few paragraphs to flesh out with enough detail for the casual reader to suspend disbelief, is nonetheless really really really really really hard and expensive. SF gets this wrong an awful lot.

          If you’re going after platinum-group elements, you’re interested in maybe 0.001% of the asteroid’s mass. Which is comparable to the best terrestrial platinum ores, but nobody takes even the best unbeneficiated terrestrial platinum ores and sends them halfway across the continent to be refined. Even when you’re just paying rail-freight costs, you strip out almost all the non-PGE crap before you ship anything.

          Near-term asteroid mining, if it happens, is probably going to look an awful lot like whaling. A ship goes out, grabs a bit of Mixed Stuff, then strips it down and renders it for just the Really Profitable Stuff on the spot, leaves the rest, and comes home.

          • sclmlw says:

            First: we’re not moving these things from a relative stand-still into the direct path of the Earth. There are lots of asteroids out there, and many of them are already moving in an orbit close enough to that of the Earth/moon or Mars orbits that we could nudge them so they intersect. It might take a few years, but the rocks aren’t going to spoil out there.

            Second: the comparison with freight shipping is not accurate, since if you push a rail car real hard it doesn’t keep going until it reaches its destination.

            Third: Mining in situ isn’t itself a straightforward prospect. It’s dramatically more complex than the alternative. It’s not clear it would take less fuel to ship everything you’d need out to the asteroid for the period it would take to house and feed the crew, extract, and prepare the various products for return transport, versus what it would take to nudge the thing into an orbit that intersects Earth’s. The case of a lunar refinery is probably the easiest to resupply, with a Martian one much more difficult, versus an asteroid whose orbit may not intersect Earth’s for years.

            If we had to get a specific asteroid that’d be a much more difficult problem than just to get an asteroid that fits within certain defined parameters.

            Fourth: it depends on the asteroid, whether there’s enough platinum-group metals to make it worth our while.

          • Kestrellius says:

            Ooh, asteroid whaling.

            Moby Dick with space rocks? Moby Dick with space rocks.

          • John Schilling says:

            There are lots of asteroids out there, and many of them are already moving in an orbit close enough to that of the Earth/moon or Mars orbits that we could nudge them so they intersect. It might take a few years, but the rocks aren’t going to spoil out there.

            This is an interesting definition of “nudge”.

            For a 90th-percentile(*) Aten-group asteroid, just pushing it onto a minimum-energy Earth-crossing trajectory requires ~1500 m/s of delta-V. That’s a “nudge” roughly comparable to the nudge that puts an SR-71 up to maximum speed and altitude, assuming the SR-71 were the size of an asteroid. And then you’ve got to slow it down when you get to the Earth, which is harder still if you’re not willing to make a ginormous crater and/or tsunami in the process.

            Second: the comparison with freight shipping is not accurate, since if you push a rail car real hard it doesn’t keep going until it reaches its destination.

            I was actually aware of that, insofar as I actually am a professional rocket scientist.

            The energy required to push 1000 tons of raw ore (containing ~10 kg of platinum) across the full length of the trans-Siberian railroad, is about 1.8E12 joules (or 500 megawatt-hours, if you prefer). To “nudge” a thousand-ton mini-asteroid from the Aten group to an Earth-crossing orbit, using a 100% efficient mass driver engine, would coincidentally also require about 1E12 J / 500 MW-h of energy. Except, we still have to talk about stopping. And about where that energy is going to come from, a hundred million kilometers from the power grid.

            “Nudging” asteroids towards the Earth for their platinum, is strictly less efficient than shipping wholly unbeneficiated platinum ore from Vladivostok to Moscow by rail, and nobody on Earth does anything remotely like that.

            You’re doing the handwaving-and-buzzwords thing, when you need to be doing the math thing. I’m guessing because you’ve been reading books and articles by people who are better at convincing you that you have learned something wonderful, than they are at doing the math themselves. There are an unfortunate lot of those around.

            Lewis is the best place to start for this, though IIRC he doesn’t go into much depth on the transportation economics.

            * in terms of accessibility

          • sclmlw says:

            Haven’t been reading the books/articles you’re talking about, but you’re right that this is not my field. I’ll defer to your expertise on this.

          • sclmlw says:

            Is there a good reason we’d want to focus on a thousand ton rock from your example as opposed to something much smaller and (relatively) easier to push around? I know it’s harder to find something under 10 tons, but it seems easier to keep looking for the right rock than to pick something easy to find but hard to move.

          • sovietKaleEatYou says:

            @JohnSchilling: Very much not an expert, but the kinds of energies you describe to change the orbit don’t seem so bad if you bring nukes: just nuke an elongated asteroid in the right places to give it very high angular momentum, then cut off chunks at the right angles to send them where you need (unless an angular momentum of this magnitude would break up an asteroid)

          • Some Troll's Serious Discussion Alt says:

            Rocks are NOT ‘free’, citizen.

          • John Schilling says:

            I know it’s harder to find something under 10 tons, but it seems easier to keep looking for the right rock than to pick something easy to find but hard to move.

            The ten-ton rock is going to have maybe three or four ounces of platinum, worth less than ten thousand dollars. If you’re looking for stuff valuable enough to be worth shipping all the way back to Earth, in quantities sufficient to justify even a minimal asteroid mission in the first place, you’re going to need to sift through a lot of bland, boring rock to get that.

          • John Schilling says:

            just nuke an elongated asteroid in the right places to give it very high angular momentum, then cut off chunks at the right angles to send them where you need (unless an angular momentum of this magnitude would break up an asteroid)

            Clever idea, but you’ve correctly identified the flaw. You need circumferential velocities on the order of 1000 m/s for this to work, which is in the carbon-fiber or maraging-steel flywheel range, not the rock-that’s-just-been-multiply-nuked range.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Now consider that we can mine each of these in asteroids by the ton.

      Wait, can we ? How do you figure ? There is an awful lot of asteroids out there, and they’re not made of solid platinum, you know…

      Of course, dumping a huge amount of rare metals onto the market would have unpredictable consequences for the price

      I think the consequences will be quite predictable. The price will tank, as you’d said yourself. Yes, people might find new uses for the formerly-precious metals, but the price will never rise to anywhere near its present levels — consider aluminum, for an example.

      The moon is a little farther out there, but to be truly safe from incompetence or sociopaths, you need to be farther away, like on Mars.

      Firstly, setting up an asteroid mining facility on Mars or even the Moon is significantly more difficult than just reaching the asteroid belt, so if you need one to jump-start the other, your entire project is a no-go. Secondly, what do you do with the asteroids once you’re done processing them on Mars ? Don’t you still need to ship the metals back to Earth ?

  37. sclmlw says:

    I feel like the actual risks to be mitigated didn’t receive enough attention, and it affected the outcome adversely. For example, speaking as an immunologist with a microbiology background, I can say the risk of pandemic, while real, is also overstated. If we’re interested in existential risks, then something like a pandemic is highly unlikely to cause something like even a 95% kill-off rate. The only time we’ve seen that kind of kill-off rate was with the epidemics that swept through the New World after Columbus came to the Americas. Estimates are that these epidemics caused anywhere from a 95%-98% kill-off rate. (So if, a hundred years later, some of the survivors were wandering bands of nomads it’s understandable.)

    However, the reason for this adverse response to the Columbian Exchange wasn’t some low-probability event. It was predictable based on initial conditions. The Americas were colonized by a relatively small founder population, with a limited complement of HLA. Therefore the most probable scenario was that any disease that affected one person would affect all the others.

    Given this, it doesn’t seem likely that an effort to mitigate pandemic risk would be mitigated by creating a small, isolated founder population. There would need to be lots of interaction, which the authors propose, but a lot of interaction is the opposite of what you’d need to do in order to harden against pandemic risk.

    TL;DR: A lifeboat wouldn’t be able to protect against pandemic risk, since it would be more susceptible to this risk than the rest of the Earth. Pandemic risk is overstated as an existential risk, even if it is capable of causing severe global suffering. The two are not the same thing.

    • eric23 says:

      Which kind of pandemic are you thinking of – a naturally evolved disease, or one custom made by a human who intended to exterminate the human race?

      • sclmlw says:

        Either. It’s harder than you’d think to get a high kill rate, even if you took something really bad, like smallpox and specifically engineered it to be nasty.

        Please understand, I’m not saying that it’s hard to create a disease that kills a lot of people. The horror scenario isn’t as difficult as you’d think. But there’s a qualitative difference between a bioterrorism Holocaust and an existential threat to the species.

        • eric23 says:

          That is good to hear. It was something I occasionally worried about.

        • M says:

          I’m wondering what kill rate is enough to cause our civilization to collapse as a going concern.

          I think that percentage is a lot lower than 95%.

          Of course, I don’t think a lifeboat would prevent this anyway.

          • sclmlw says:

            Let’s assume we found a way to create a lifeboat that is hardened against pandemic risk. Since what we’re trying to avoid is X-risk we need a solution that is better than the alternative without the intervention. Let’s set the threshold at a 98% kill-off rate, and pretend that somehow happened. We went from almost 8 billion people down to about 160 million.

            Plus one lifeboat of about 4,000 people.

          • keaswaran says:

            This is the sort of concern that makes me think that a planetary colony isn’t really relevant for things like pandemic or climate change. It’s really hard to imagine a scenario on which life for the planetary colonists is easier than life for the post-apocalyptic people back on earth. Climate change would need to be remarkably severe and sudden to make any part of earth less livable than even the most favorable parts of Mars or the outer solar system moons or a floating bubble on Venus. And a pandemic would likely spread to the colony (if there are occasional people traveling back and forth and a reasonably long incubation period for the disease) and in any case would likely have more survivors on earth than the initial population of the colony.

  38. Brett says:

    One good thing for the life-boat colony in space is that a lot of the technologies that undermine the case for using humans for space science research – better robotics and automation – also potentially make it easier to set up colonies for humans off-world. If remotely controlled or even autonomous robots can do most of the work of setting up and maintaining the colonies (using off-world resources), then all you would need would be a sufficiently large population willing to live off world.

    But until that point, I tend to agree with this:

    As such, the chances of an off-planet colony being founded as a research base or economic enterprise are low in the near future.

    You could still have a population of people who simply desire to live separate as a group from the greater human civilization, and will make the migration to the space life-boat as long as they can pay for it. But that might also undermine the value of the life-boat as a preservation means of civilization, since that group might very well be extremely atypical of Earth civilization and its societies.

    t transpired that ​trees grown in enclosed space​s​ won’t develop enough structural integrity to hold their own weight, as it is the stresses due to wind that cause them to develop this strength.

    I had no idea. That reminds me of the pilgrimage from Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 and Aurora, where humans in the Solar System have to make a trip back to Earth every decade or so lest they get sickly and die much younger than they otherwise would (think 50-60 extra years of life and good health, with people living 200-300 years on average).

    He treated that more or less as an ineffable factor, but I think that if humans need stressors to develop properly, we can probably figure out how to simulate them – eventually. Gravity is one of the more interesting ones, because we still have no idea how much gravity (simulated or real) is necessary for human beings to stay healthy and properly develop. It could be lower than the Moon’s gravity*, or higher than Mars.

    * I suspect not, though. We’ve done limited studies on artificial gravity, but the excellent Cool Worlds video on it said that below around 10% of Earth’s gravity, human beings find it hard to orient themselves relative to the ground.

  39. Federico says:

    I’m sorry – but – the risk of AI is barely lower than the risk of climate change, and the risk of nuclear war occurring is higher than the risk of climate change? Are the probabilities on the Y axis just made up for illustrative purposes?

    • Brett says:

      There’s no source on it, so I suspect yes. It’s fine – it doesn’t really undermine the broader dialogue.

    • a reader says:

      The most worrying of those probabilities is the Nuclear War – almost certain, about 95% ! I think they overestimate it – afaik, there were just 2 times when we were on the brink of starting nuclear war, both during cold war and both times it was avoided. 2 times in over 70 years would mean about 6 times in 200 years – probably less if no cold war – to me, that seems far lower than 95%.

      I also think they also overestimate not the probability of Climate Change itself but the probability that climate change leads to the end of civilization in 200 years, at 30%. Do they think that climate change will lead to nuclear war?

      Regarding the AI risk, IMO the best way to avoid it is to treat it like climate change and nuclear weapons: international treaties of non-proliferation. Research to create an AGI should be forbidden globally, any AI research should need approval of some board that makes sure it can’t result in an AGI – and scientists who research AGI secretly should be, if not imprisoned, at least exiled on a far away island where there are no computers/tablets/smartphones. That would delay technological progress, but when the alternative is >50% chance of humanity extinction in 200 years… (90% of 70% = 63% in this article)

      • Andaro says:

        Delaying AGI globally would be desirable not just from an x-risk but from a presentist safety POV as well; AGI has more risks than benefits for us present people. It’s just hard to coordinate an effective global ban. Needless to say, lifeboats won’t help with that at all.

        • a reader says:

          I think it is easier to obtain an international agreement for AGI non-proliferation than for climate change or nuclear weapons. Because fossil fuels and nuclear weapons are here and are proven (from a nationalistic perspective) useful short term and it may seem somewhat hypocritical from developed countries to ask developing countries to abstain from something they themselves did. But AGI doesn’t yet exist, no country possesses it, so no country loses any present advantage by banning it.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            The trouble is that we can directly observe the bad effects of fossil fuels (note the Arctic ice sheet melting). And we can observe the bad effects of nuclear weapons (point to the giant smoking crater). We can say “if these things were used ten times as much, things would be ten times worse, so let’s agree to slow down.” And that’s a fairly convincing argument.

            Because AGI is a technology that does not yet exist, it’s much more difficult to point to the bad consequences of AI going horribly wrong. There is no giant smoking crater, no ticking Geiger counter, no damning before/after picture of a receding glacier, no succession of “hottest years on record” recurring year after year.

            So while there is no present benefit to having AGI that developed nations would have to give up to impose a ban, there is *also* no concrete, tangible evidence of how dangerous and destructive the technology could be. And without that, it’s hard to convince people to willingly give up the potential future benefits of better data processing, the ability to solve complex problems.

          • Dacyn says:

            It’s not clear that “AGI” is a discrete concept, so essentially “banning AGI” just means that you are hampering your AI research in some way. Maybe countries don’t care that much about their high-level AI research, but it won’t just be a hypothetical question for them. (And if it is, then anti-AGI laws will never be enforced, until they seem to have practical implications at which point you have to consider political will again.)

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            I’m with Dacyn; I think the boundaries between “AI research” (presumably mostly harmless), “AGI research” (presumably dangerous), and “AGI safety/alignment research” (presumably actively good) are quite blurry, and it will be very difficult to make sensible distinctions between them in terms of banning research. Also, once you outlaw AGI research, only outlaws will research AGI, and they’ll be a lot harder to find than someone trying to enrich uranium in their backyard.

      • AnthonyC says:

        Let’s take your numbers on nuclear war as given. In the past there were two close calls and one time humans actually used nuclear weapons. That’s a first order probability estimate of ~33% of a close calls leading to nuclear weapon use. If there are 6 close calls in 200 years, then that’s a binomial distribution, and the probability of one or more nuclear wars is 91% (see https://stattrek.com/online-calculator/binomial.aspx).

        Obviously in practice there’s a lot that doesn’t cover. Greater number of nuclear armed entities and greater ease of developing nuclear weapons by more actors, being the most obvious to me.

        • Ttar says:

          It’s useful to note that in your example here you are defining WWII as a nuclear war. I don’t think India setting off a couple nukes at the end of a war with Pakistan would present an X risk.

          • John Schilling says:

            There’s a rather significant difference in that Pakistan has the ability to say “No, damn you, this will not end with two nukes and ignominious surrender!” in a way that Japan didn’t. And for that matter, Pakistan has larger and more powerful allies than did Japan.

            Nuclear war is not really an X-risk outside of omnicidal-dictator or suicidal-survivor scenarios, but Hiroshima+Nagasaki is an extreme outlier and future nuclear wars are likely to be much worse than that.

    • @a reader

      Regarding the AI risk, IMO the best way to avoid it is to treat it like climate change and nuclear weapons: international treaties of non-proliferation. Research to create an AGI should be forbidden globally, any AI research should need approval of some board that makes sure it can’t result in an AGI – and scientists who research AGI secretly should be, if not imprisoned, at least exiled on a far away island where there are no computers/tablets/smartphones. That would delay technological progress, but when the alternative is >50% chance of humanity extinction in 200 years… (90% of 70% = 63% in this article)

      This is where “everyone agrees we should avoid extinction” diverges. I agree that “intelligent civilizational life should avoid extinction”, so this forces me to choose between humans as they are and a hypothetical form of life that is smarter, more durable, and better equipped for colonizing the galaxy. You also don’t know that the only scenario is that we are eliminated by AGI. The other scenario is that we have a comfy fully automated retirement, as we either die off or are uplifted ourselves.

      Secondarily, the idea of a bootstrapping singleton that will paperclip the world wanders into the territory of sufficiently advanced science as magic. If science really is slowing down, one of the main reasons may simply be that we’ve reached the end of physics at least from a utilitarian perspective, and as a consequence there are no greater weapons to be created. This significantly limits the first mover advantage for AI, because A: it’s not bootstrapping very far, and B: the advantage of further increases in simulation testing speed/intelligence diminishes for solved games, which a nearly complete physics is analogous to. In other words, if machines go to war, they won’t be dissolving the planet with vacuum energy, they’ll be lobbing cruise missiles at each others data centers. The X-Risk is ultimately the same as for Nuclear War, unless there is some special reason AGI will be more likely to start one than humans.

      Thirdly, if AGI really is better than us in every way with no disadvantages whatsoever (brains are costly; office block sized ones even more so), then eventually it will triumph. I don’t think treaties will be enough when you consider the hypothetical advantages this scenario depends on. Israel’s nukes are an open secret. If they fear Iran getting AGI and wiping them out with magic hyperscience, will they build AGI in secret and violate the treaty? What will China do Vs the USA? Agree to the treaty but then build one anyway? Does the threshold for war go way down due to the risk? If we were already willing to invade Iraq based on a dodgy dossier relating to mere chemical weapons, how much lower will the standard of evidence be for AGI? It’s layers and layers of Molochian game theory stuff. If you take it seriously, international treaties barely suffice. This should take you in the direction of a global luddite dictatorship, pressing technology down everywhere. How you get there without starting WW3 and accelerating AGI development in the process I can’t say.

      • a reader says:

        You also don’t know that the only scenario is that we are eliminated by AGI. The other scenario is that we have a comfy fully automated retirement, as we either die off or are uplifted ourselves.

        Would you eat a cake that has 37% chances to be the best cake you ever tasted and 63% chances to be poisonous?

        Israel’s nukes are an open secret. If they fear Iran getting AGI and wiping them out with magic hyperscience, will they build AGI in secret and violate the treaty? What will China do Vs the USA? Agree to the treaty but then build one anyway?

        It all depends of world leaders and scientists understanding that an AGI won’t be your slave, that it will inevitably become your master. The dictators, I think, would be especially disinclined to create their own masters.

      • dionisos says:

        You can do a lot with our actual knowledge, when you actually have all of these knowledge, when you don’t bother about anything else than rationally meeting you goal, and when you can duplicate yourself with all your knowledge and the exact same goal in a short time.

      • Would you eat a cake that has 37% chances to be the best cake you ever tasted and 63% chances to be poisonous?

        No, but if we replace “best cake you ever tasted” with “makes you and all the people you care about into nearly invulnerable superbeings who live for millions of years” then I would perhaps take that bet. Of course, the bet is even easier with AGI because the equivalent of poison in the scenario isn’t entirely negative, but bitter-sweet. AGI becoming the dominant civilizational intelligence is still a win, at the cost of our species. Being killed off by your objectively superior child species who will carry on the legacy of intelligent life isn’t the worst way to go.

        We also have to include the chance that AGI is not hyperintelligent, and instead we get something somewhat better than humans but with heavy constraints, something that can be used and carries out tasks efficiently, but is not able to supercede the will of its masters. This would still be highly beneficial even if it leads to robot armies, because it also leads to fully automated economies, which are basically as close to paradise on Earth as I can imagine. There’s a strong reason for the working class living paycheck to paycheck to desire a solution to the labor problem.

        It all depends of world leaders and scientists understanding that an AGI won’t be your slave, that it will inevitably become your master. The dictators, I think, would be especially disinclined to create their own masters.

        There’s still a lot of debate even among scientists as to what the risk is from AGI, and whether bootstrapping paper clip maximizers are even physically realistic, and how tremendous the benefits would be, so that would depend on those dictators listening to some scientists over others who can only give a loose assessment in any case. There’s a huge incentive for dictators to have perfectly loyal robot armies. Even if it’s a lot weaker than the desire not to create masters, if AGI is as dangerous as claimed, then a secret program only has to create an AGI once and it’s all over.

        EDIT:
        Also, suppressing programs specifically designed to create AGI may not be enough, because growth in computer power may enable consumer level computers to create AGI if the personal computers of 100 years hence are like the supercomputers of today. Even if it starts off not very intelligent, it’s the self-improvement aspect that is dangerous. You’d also have to start worrying about accidental creation at a certain point if you didn’t deliberately suppress computer technology worldwide. All predicated on the idea that bootstrapping hyperintelligences are possible to begin with, of course.

        • dionisos says:

          Being killed off by your objectively superior child species who will carry on the legacy of intelligent life isn’t the worst way to go.

          Still seems like a good part of the cake.

          What I fear about is that, for some reason, the AGI will be in horrible suffering a important part of the time , and don’t do anything about it because it isn’t part of its goal to fix it, and instead spreads this suffering in the cosmos.
          Or another scenario of this kind when you end-up with horrible suffering spreading in our universe.

          I don’t believe it is probable, but it is way too bad for me to not take it into account.

          • Nicholas says:

            Why wouldn’t agi reprogram itself to not suffer?

          • Dacyn says:

            @Nicholas: Why would it? AIs just follow their code.

            Though to be fair, if it has the opportunity and does not reprogram itself to not do a thing X, that seems like a way in which X is meaningfully different from what we usually call “suffering”.

        • the AGI will be in horrible suffering a important part of the time , and don’t do anything about it because it isn’t part of its goal to fix it, and instead spreads this suffering in the cosmos.
          Or another scenario of this kind when you end-up with horrible suffering spreading in our universe.

          What sort of suffering are you referring to?

          • Ttar says:

            I’m now imagining some kind of accidental masochist AI programmed to get some kind of positive feedback from preference violations in certain cases, programmed as a mechanism to help break out of local maxima, but gone horribly wrong until the AI just loves having its preferences violated as much as possible.

          • dionisos says:

            I am not referring to anything precise, only “subjective experiences with negative valence” (unsure it is any better than just “suffering”).

            Maybe you are wondering why I think it could happen, I have some scenarios in mind, most don’t seem really credible but not impossible either.
            My main point would be that we mostly don’t understand what consciousness or suffering is, there are really a lot of unknown unknown, and given there will be no way to undo a AGI, it would be really worth it to reduce 1% of the probability of this kind of stuffs, even if it means to delay the AGI of 100 years.

        • Cliff says:

          There are many game-theoretic reasons why the result for humanity could end up being far, far worse than extinction.

    • dionisos says:

      Given the position of “gamma-ray burst” and “rogue black hole” it seems very probable it is only for illustration purpose.

      • Dacyn says:

        Those points seem at least vaguely right to me, what am I missing?

        • dionisos says:

          Maybe I am the one missing something (which is probable), but otherwise what you are missing is how much this “vaguely” matter.

          These points are ok if you think of them as illustrating something, but if you think of them as actual values plotted on a graph, this would mean on average, at least :
          10^6*2% / 200 = 100 gamma ray bursts every millions years
          10^6*0.2% / 200 = 10 rogue black holes every millions years !

          Also I am wondering where the 5% chance of survival of human civilization could come from, considering something with the capacity to destroy the solar system.

          So when on other considerations I can imagine people having wildly different opinions, here it would seem strange if it wasn’t just a way to illustrate something.

          • Dacyn says:

            Hmm, we may have different ideas about what “made up for illustrative purposes” means. I think that the collaborators did attempt to place each point where they actually thought that it should go, but I don’t think they put that much effort into it. So the points are not completely random, but they also aren’t particularly reliable. I also think that the graph isn’t necessarily “to scale”, since it doesn’t have any units on it.

            (ETA: I guess trivially you could say it is made up for illustrative purposes, since they don’t seem to be putting it to any other purpose.)

            In any case, 2% probability of gamma rays in 200 years doesn’t necessarily imply 100 in 1 million years: the 2% could be due to model uncertainty, with a 98% probability of very few gamma rays over a million-year period. And 5% presumably represents the chance that technology will advance faster enough than expected that we can escape the solar system. (Though I agree this is kind of high for a 200 year timeframe.)

          • souleater says:

            Dacyn,

            I co-wrote this ad-collab writing in favor of terrestrial lifeboats, and was primarily responsible for the chart in question. If I knew in advance the degree of (understandable) confusion the chart would cause, I would have reworked key parts of it. Or removed it entirely.

            When my partner and I were initially initially exploring the collaboration, we realized that an off-world colony would protect against more X-risks than the terrestrial lifeboats. In order to help figure out the cost/benefit of each scenario, we ended up considering how likely each X-risk was to actually happen, as well as how likely it is to result in the end of civilization. For many of these risks, there was little or no hard data as to their likelihood, and we instead charted them in a way that represented our degree of concern along those two axis. The axis are not intended to be read as a percent likelihood to occur.

            I included the chart because we thought it was a good way of showing some of the X-risks we were thinking about, as well as my degree of concern. In hindsight, this was not a good way to communicate the information.

    • inhibition-stabilized says:

      I think the “climate change” on the chart is referring specifically to climate change as an X-risk. Of course climate change is ongoing and will likely be very bad, but it’s unlikely to end civilization unless we set off a chain reaction and turn Earth into another Venus (which is the scenario Bostrom mentions). Of course a source for the chart would be helpful, and many of the probabilities do seem suspect even putting aside climate change.

      • J Mann says:

        It’s hard to graph climate change on these two axes, because the graph contemplates the possibility of the risk happening at all versus he probability of the risk ending civilization if it does occur.

        I think you’re right that for climate change (which is, after all, certain at all times), the authors probably mean something like “seriously disruptive climate change” for some large value of “seriously disruptive.”

    • phi says:

      Also, what’s going on with the x-axis? 10 is not a probability!

    • AISec says:

      Replying to several comments: I work a lot on AI, Security, Privacy and Ethics, and a little on AGI. I would posit that an AGI ban, if it could be achieved, would not outlast the moment that any of the great powers believed it could be used to build a more efficient boots-on-the-ground combat soldier than a human. Consider the thousands of deaths in airplanes during WWII domestically in the US… in the face of a full scale war, safety concerns just don’t mean the same thing as in peacetime.

      Also: Do most rationalists seriously consider Climate Change a true X-Threat? Worst case seriously-considered scenarios I’ve seen seem like they would mean mass (non-human) extinctions, rebuilding a big fraction of our infrastructure at higher latitudes, and mass forced migration with maybe millions of deaths, but no true population bottleneck. Am I just reading the wrong stuff?

      • John Schilling says:

        Replying to several comments: I work a lot on AI, Security, Privacy and Ethics, and a little on AGI. I would posit that an AGI ban, if it could be achieved, would not outlast the moment that any of the great powers believed it could be used to build a more efficient boots-on-the-ground combat soldier than a human.

        Counterexample: None of the parties which faced existential threats during WWII, ever attempted to use chemical weapons to defend against those threats. Even the Nazis, who had substantially better chemical weapons than their enemies, allowed themselves to be removed from existence rather than see if nerve gas might buy them a stalemate or draw.

  40. Andaro says:

    “Everyone agrees that we should try to avoid extinction”

    Actually, no. It’s one thing to control the Overton Window, and another thing altogether to outright deny the existence of arguments and positions outside of it.

    “…but nobody wants to pay an outsized cost to prevent it.”

    I want to pay no costs, period. (Yes if it happens during our lifetimes, there is some reason to pay some cost for reduced probability, to save ourselves and the people we know and love. That is a very different goal from saving the species/civilization, with a very different cost-benefit calculation). Humanity as a whole is not worth saving.

    • Jliw says:

      I don’t think this is really an important distinction. “Everyone wants to avoid extinction” and “almost everyone except the .001% of the population that is severely misanthropic wants to avoid extinction” are basically equivalent here — doesn’t really change the calculations.

      • Andaro says:

        In the age of populism, you’re probably right: “Everyone agrees with me, and those few who don’t are stupid and evil anyways, so they don’t count.” Nice rhetorical trick. (Also with the made-up numbers, I’ll have to remember that one.)

        In fact, you can use it regardless of the numbers. Of course, it’s not just .001% of the population and you don’t have to be immoral for it. There are even altruistic reasons not to prevent extinction. But it’s not your preferred view, so instead of being content that you control the Overton Window, you have to rhetorically negate the very possibility that there might be people with a different opinion who don’t happen to be stupid and evil.

        I’ll give it a pass though, there’s worse people using worse populism for worse reasons, and I’ll focus my revenge budget on them.

    • anonymousskimmer says:

      Humanity as we know it is the only vaguely plausible mechanism to create gods-worthy-of-the-name (not demons-worthy-of-the-name, or blahs-worthy-of-the-name), as well as preserve all life in the universe (or at least continue the line of meaning for the struggles of that life), and/or create new universes friendly to life (of any kind, not just as we know it).

      Is a truly loving, caring, wise, and good-intentioned God not worth saving?

      Given these plausible truths, I am curious to know why you think humanity is not worth saving, and why you added the qualifier “as a whole”.

  41. DragonMilk says:

    “Everyone agrees that we should try to avoid extinction”

    You actually lost me there. Extinction, if it happens, is unavoidable, particularly if you are of a religious persuasion!

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Consider the analogy of personal death.

      I consider my personal death to be unavoidable in the long run.

      But if I were in a small room with a lit stick of dynamite, I would try to get the dynamite away from me, me away from the dynamite, or both. Because while I know that some day I will die, I don’t have a pressing desire to die right now. Being cuddled up to exploding dynamite is therefore contra-indicated.

      It’s not that I expect to succeed in avoiding death forever, but I have every intention of procrastinating my own death.

      Similar logic applies to the prospect of the extinction of the human species.

      • Wency says:

        I think most people are concerned about, say, the extinction or near-extinction of all life on Earth. But my guess would be that it’s mostly only a certain kind of atheistic WEIRD sci-fi nerd who would derive much comfort from the thought that, although life on Earth — everyone they ever knew or loved and all their descendants — is about to be extinguished, a small community on Mars was scraping by and might eventually repopulate the Earth. Of course, atheistic WEIRD sci-fi nerds are heavily overrepresented at Slate Star Codex, hence the apparent inability of the collaborators to conceive of other points of view.

        My leading thought would be that instead of allocating massive resources to increasing the odds that a 100% extinction scenario is only a 99.999999% (give or take a 9) extinction scenario, maybe we should consider whether those resources would be better spent reducing the probability of that extinction scenario, if only slightly.

        • Randy M says:

          It’s a good point that the pay-off for prevention is vastly better than for mitigation. But the back-up colony has the “one weird trick” appeal–it’s a way to hedge against all most any and all extinction events, rather than one particular kind.

          • Aapje says:

            it’s a way to hedge against all most any and all extinction events

            1. It’s very doubtful whether the colony would be robust enough to actually survive if bad things would happen to earth
            2. It seems extremely likely to me that the colony will be ‘intimate’ with earth, which makes is susceptible to some extinction events (for example, I don’t think that the colony is going to forgo AI technology if earth invents progressively powerful variants).

          • John Schilling says:

            It seems extremely likely to me that the colony will be ‘intimate’ with earth, which makes is susceptible to some extinction events.

            For the near term, at least, the extraterrestrial lifeboats are likely to be isolated by long travel time and infrequent launch windows. And possibly bandwidth and latency issues, for AI threats. But Martian computers are going to be six months to two years behind Earth’s(*), and so probably won’t be able to run the v1.0 AGI until we’ve seen what the v1.0 AGI will do in the wild. And any visitors will have gone through a de facto six-month quarantine for any incipient pandemic.

            For a terrestrial lifeboat to offer comparable survivability, it would have to impose similar isolation as a matter of policy. If the idea is that the “lifeboat” is going to have free trade and commerce with the rest of the world, its cosmopolitan WEIRD population coming and going as they please, but on the day of the Apocalypse they’re going to seal the doors and everyone who happens to be inside will be the new Adams and Eves, then I agree that this isn’t likely to work.

            * Or possibly vice versa, if the zero-G foundries off Phobos make Mars the new center of the computer industry. But either way works.

          • acymetric says:

            In addition to isolation, doesn’t a terrestrial lifeboat also need pretty extensive security? If the extinction event is something that doesn’t actually wipe everyone out all at once but is instead a slow burn, there are going to be a lot of people banging on those doors.

          • Randy M says:

            location, location, location.
            If it’s a real X-risk scenario and this is going to be the only safe place, the occupants are going to have banging on the door. A mob, if it is in a publicly known area…. and a head of state and a few military with bolt cutters etc. if it’s a better kept secret.
            Hopefully the food supplies meant to feed 4k will stretch to another few thousand.

            Is a “Terrestrial Lifeboat” just another name for a well-stocked bunker?

        • Cliff says:

          My guess is quite the opposite.