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Archive for the ‘existential risks’ category: Page 67

Sep 27, 2007

SCADA (in)Security’s Going to Cost Us

Posted by in categories: cybercrime/malcode, defense, existential risks

When I read about the “Aurora Generator Test” video that has been leaked to the media I wondered “why leak it now now and who benefits.” Like many of you, I question the reasons behind any leak from an “unnamed source” inside the US Federal government to the media. Hopefully we’ll all benefit from this particular leak.

Then I thought back to a conversation I had at a trade show booth I was working in several years ago. I was speaking with a fellow from the power generation industry. He indicated that he was very worried about the security ramifications of a hardware refresh of the SCADA systems that his utility was using to control its power generation equipment. The legacy UNIX-based SCADA systems were going to be replaced by Windows based systems. He was even more very worried that the “air gaps” that historically have been used to physically separate the SCADA control networks from power company’s regular data networks might be removed to cut costs.

Thankfully on July 19, 2007 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposed to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation a set of new, and much overdue, cyber security standards that will, once adopted and enforced do a lot to help make an attacker’s job a lot harder. Thank God, the people who operate the most critically important part of our national infrastructure have noticed the obvious.

Hopefully a little sunlight will help accelerate the process of reducing the attack surface of North America’s power grid.

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Sep 6, 2007

The Other Side of the Immortality Coin

Posted by in category: existential risks

There are two sides to living as long as possible: developing the technologies to cure aging, such as SENS, and preventing human extinction risk, which threatens everybody. Unfortunately, in the life extensionist community, and the world at large, the balance of attention and support is lopsided in favor of the first side of the coin, while largely ignoring the second. I see people meticulously obsessed with caloric restriction and SENS, but apparently unaware of human extinction risks. There’s the global warming movement, sure, but no efforts to address the bio, nano, and AI risks.

It’s easy to understand why. Life extension therapies are a positive and happy thing, whereas existential risk is a negative and discouraging thing. The affect heuristic causes us to shy away from negative affect, while only focusing on projects with positive affect: life extension. Egocentric biases help magnify the effect, because it’s easier to imagine oneself aging and dying than getting wiped out along with billions of others as a result of a planetary plague, for instance. Attributional biases work against both sides of the immortality coin: because there’s no visible bad guy to fight, people aren’t as juiced up as they would be, about, say, protesting a human being like Bush.

Another element working against the risk side of the coin is the assignment of credit: a research team may be the first to significantly extend human life, in which case, the team and all their supporters get bragging rights. Prevention of existential risks is a bit hazier, consisting of networks of safeguards which all contribute a little bit towards lowering the probability of disaster. Existential risk prevention isn’t likely to be the way it is in the movies, where the hero punches out the mad scientist right before he presses the red button that says “Planet Destroyer”, but because of a cooperative network of individuals working to increase safety in the diverse areas that risks could emerge from: biotech, nanotech, and AI.

Present-day immortalists and transhumanists simply don’t care enough about existential risk. Many of them are at the same stage with regards to ideological progression as most of humanity is against the specter of death: accepting, in denial, dismissive. There are few things less pleasant to contemplate than humanity destroying itself, but it must be done anyhow, because if we slip and fall, there’s no getting up.

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Aug 27, 2007

Looking Human Extinction in the Face

Posted by in category: existential risks

A point on human extinction risk analysis.

To look at existential risk rationally requires that we maintain a cool, detached perspective. It’s somewhat hard to think of how this might be done, although watching videos of planetary destruction could actually help! As a detective needs to look at a few crime scenes before he can get experienced and move beyond being a simple gumshoe, existential risk analysts need to view simulations and thought experiments of planetary destruction before they can consider it without flinching. Because it is impossible to acquire experience of human extinction risk, as by definition no one is alive afterwards, we have to settle for simulations.

The reaction of many educated adults to extinction risk discussions reminds me of the reaction kids in my Middle School health classes had to the mention of the word “penis”: adolescent giggling. If I were to get onstage in front of a random audience and start talking about existential risk when they didn’t expect it, using words like “planetary destruction”, they’d probably start giggling, at least in their minds. Obviously, we have a way to mature as a society until we can look calmly at the prospect of our own demise. By resolving to do so yourself, you can be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

Last week a blogger for the Houston Chronicle, Eric Berger, covered my post on immortality and extinction risk, and the immaturity of most of the comments received is expected but also telling. One reader writes that we should hire Will Smith to save the world, another writes: “I don’t worry about this sort of thing, because when it happens, I’ll be dead and won’t care.” Just like how you get to see someone’s true self a little better when they’re a tad tipsy, we get to see what people really think of extinction risk analysis by their anonymous comments on a big website. When people are on the record, they aren’t likely to make pithy comments like those on the blog, but they might be thinking them, and what they say in public is likely to be a dressed-up version of these sentiments. For instance, there’s an article that appeared in The Mercury on the 22nd of April in 2003, “Disastronomer Royal: More Apocalyptic then the Pope”, which exemplifies the reaction to those who take the prospect of extinction risk seriously, referring to Martin Rees in this case. Extinction denialist articles are not hard to find on the Internet: just Google them.

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Aug 6, 2007

NASA designs nuclear asteroid deflector

Posted by in categories: asteroid/comet impacts, existential risks, lifeboat, space

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has designed a nuclear-warhead-carrying spacecraft, that would be boosted by the US agency’s proposed Ares V cargo launch vehicle, to deflect asteroids.

The Ares V launch vehicle is scheduled to first fly in 2018. It would launch 130 tons to LEO.

I welcome this study for providing a clearer analysis of the deflection options and the analyzing costs of searching for threatening asteroids.

The 8.9m (29ft)-long “Cradle” spacecraft would carry six 1,500kg (3,300lb) missile-like interceptor vehicles that would carry one 1.2MT B83 nuclear warhead each, with a total mass of 11,035kg.

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Jun 19, 2007

The Missile Shield and the Race for Space Awareness

Posted by in categories: defense, existential risks, geopolitics, military, nuclear weapons, open source, space

The US-led effort to expand the military BMEWS (ballistic missile early warning radar system) to Poland and the Czech Republic provoke Russian military strategists. Putin has proposed using their already operative radar base in Azerbajian (See “Azeri radar eyed for US shield”, BBC) in exchange for information from the US system. The US/NATO proposed TMD (theater missile defense) will also integrate early warning systems for short-range missiles in southern Europe. Is the race for space awareness and the weaponization of space inevitable?

The justification for the missile shield is the potential threat of long range missiles from Iran and North Korea (See “N-Korea test fires missile”, BBC). Military experts predict that with the current progress of nuclear research and missile technology available to Iran they will pose a threat to the US in 2015. NATO and Russia co-operate in certain military matters through the Russia-Nato Council but has increasingly been in conflict over the Iranian nuclear program and the European missile shield. (See “Russia-NATO: A marriage of convenience”, RIA Novosti). Russia has also demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the missile shield by launching their RS-24 multiple missile system carrying 10 warheads (See “RS-24 Missiles to replace old systems within next few years”, Interfax).

Terrestrial radars need to be complemented by satellites to keep track of missile launches across the planet (so called “boost phase interceptors”, see “Missile defense, satellites and politics”, The Space Review) to ensure complete space awareness. The Chinese Space Agency tested an anti-satellite missile earlier this year (See “Pentagon says China’s anti-satellite test posed a threat to nations”, AP). The move towards a hot space war could be imminent. The official press release was the only information given from Chinese authorities. The secrecy surrounding space capabilities was recently challenged by French authorities when they discovered 20–30 unregistered US surveillance satellites. (See “French says ‘non’ to U.S. Disclosure of Secret Satellites”, Space.com).

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Jun 4, 2007

Putin Threatens Europe with Nukes

Posted by in categories: existential risks, nuclear weapons

Vladimir Putin is acting pretty crazy these days. The latest is that he is threatening to point nuclear missiles at Europe because the US is planning to install a missile defense system in Poland. How will this make Europe less inclined to have a missile defense system..? From CNN:

Speaking to foreign reporters days before he travels to Germany for the annual summit with President Bush and the other Group of Eight leaders, Putin assailed the White House plan to place a radar system in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in neighboring Poland. Washington says the system is needed to counter a potential threat from Iran.

In an interview released Monday, Putin suggested that Russia may respond to the threat by aiming its nuclear weapons at Europe.

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May 21, 2007

Researchers Endorse Global Early Warning System to Prevent Pandemics

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, defense, existential risks

Five evolutionary stages of pathogen progression from animals to human transmission have been identified A proposed monitoring system of viral chatter has been proposed to provide warning of new diseases before they spread to humans.

In 1999, Wolfe began field work in the jungles of Cameroon to track “viral chatter,” or the regular transmission of diseases from animals to people, usually without further spread among humans. By monitoring the habits and the blood pathologies of bushmeat hunters and their kills, Wolfe and his team have identified at least three previously unknown retroviruses from the same family as HIV, as well as promoted safe practices for handling animals and animal carcasses.

“The Cameroon project demonstrated that it’s possible to collect information on viral transmission under very difficult circumstances from these highly exposed people,” Wolfe said.

With Cameroon as a prototype and a $2.5 million National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award as seed money, Wolfe has gone on to create a network of virus-discovery projects that monitor hunters, butchers, and wildlife trade and zoo workers in some of the world’s most remote viral hotspots. The network of a dozen sites in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malaysia, Laos, Madagascar and Paraguay include source locations for such emerging diseases as SARS, avian flu, Nipah, Ebola and monkeypox.

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May 4, 2007

US flu control strategy flaws and suggested improvements

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, existential risks

In a report to be published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Computational Biology and currently available online, Sally Blower, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and Romulus Breban and Raffaele Vardavas, postdoctoral fellows in Blower’s research group, used novel mathematical modeling techniques to predict that current health policy — based on voluntary vaccinations — is not adequate to control severe flu epidemics and pandemics unless vaccination programs offer incentives to individuals.

According to the researchers, the severity of such a health crisis could be reduced if programs were to provide several years of free vaccinations to individuals who pay for only one year. Interestingly, however, some incentive programs could have the opposite effect. Providing free vaccinations for entire families, for example, could actually increase the frequency of severe epidemics. This is because when the head of the household makes a choice — flu shots or no flu shots — on behalf of all the other household members, there is no individual decision-making, and adaptability is decreased.

While other models have determined what proportion of the population would need to be vaccinated in order to prevent a pandemic, none of these models have shown whether this critical coverage can actually be reached. What has been missing, according to Blower, a mathematical and evolutionary biologist, is the human factor.

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Apr 10, 2007

More advice on best actions to survive a nearby nuclear blast

Posted by in categories: existential risks, military, nuclear weapons

Carnegie Mellon researchers Keith Florig and Baruch Fischhoff offer simple, practical advice: on whether it is worth citizens’ time to stock supplies needed for a home shelter, how urgently should one seek shelter following a nearby nuclear detonation, and how long should survivors remain in a shelter after the radioactive dust settles.


“A number of emergency-management organizations recommend that people stock their homes with a couple dozen categories of emergency supplies,” said Florig of Carnegie Mellon’s engineering and public policy department. “We calculated that it would cost about $240 per year for a typical family to maintain such a stock, including the value of storage space and the time needed to tend to it.”

Their research also suggests that many families who could afford to follow the stocking guidelines might think twice about whether the investment was really worth it, given the low probability that stocked supplies would actually be used in a nuclear emergency.

They advocate simple rules for minimizing risk based on how far people are from the blast. If you are within several miles of the blast, there will be no time to flee and you will have only minutes to seek shelter. If you are 10 miles [downwind] from the blast, you will have 15 to 60 minutes to find shelter, but not enough time to reliably flee the area before the fallout arrives,” said Florig.

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Apr 2, 2007

Decisive, immediate action can reduce Pandemic Deaths

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, existential risks, lifeboat

Cities that quickly closed schools and discouraged public gatherings had fewer deaths from the great flu pandemic in 1918 than cities that did not, researchers reported on Monday. Experts agree that a pandemic of some virus, most likely influenza, is almost 100 percent certain. What is not certain is when it will strike and which virus it will be.

In Kansas City, no more than 20 people could attend weddings or funerals. New York mandated staggered shifts at factories. In Seattle, the mayor told people to wear face masks.

No single action worked on its own, the researchers found, it was the combination of measures that saved lives. Peak death rates can be 50% to eight times lower. St. Louis authorities introduced “a broad series of measures designed to promote social distancing” as soon as flu showed up. Philadelphia downplayed the 1918 flu.

Philadelphia ended up with a peak death rate of 257 people per 100,000 population per week. St. Louis had just 31 per 100,000 at the peak.

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