Cambridge’s high-profile launch of the Centre for Study of Existential Risk last November received a lot of attention on LessWrong, and a number of people have been enquiring as to what‘s happened since. This post is meant to give a little explanation and update of what’s been going on.
Motivated by a common concern over human activity-related risks to humanity, Lord Martin Rees, Professor Huw Price, and Jaan Tallinn founded the Centre for Study of Existential Risk last year. However, this announcement was made before the establishment of a physical research centre or securement of long-term funding. The last 9 months have been focused on turning an important idea into a reality.
Following the announcement in November, Professor Price contacted us at the Future of Humanity Institute regarding the possibility of collaboration on joint academic funding opportunities; the aim being both to raise the funds for CSER’s research programmes and to support joint work by the FHI and CSER’s researchers on anthropogenic existential risk. We submitted our first grant application in January to the European Research Council – an ambitious project to create “A New Science of Existential Risk” that, if successful, would provide enough funding for CSER’s first research programme - a sizeable programme that will run for five years.
We’ve been successful in the first and second rounds, and we will hear a final round decision at the end of the year. It was also an opportunity for us to get some additional leading academics onto the project – Sir Partha Dasgupta, Professor of Economics at Cambridge and an expert in social choice theory, sustainability and intergenerational ethics, is a co-PI (along with Huw Price, Martin Rees and Nick Bostrom). In addition, a number of prominent academics concerned about technology-related risk – including Stephen Hawking, David Spiegelhalter, George Church and David Chalmers – have joined our advisory board.
The FHI regards establishment of CSER as of the highest priority for a number of reasons including:
1) The value of the research the Centre will engage in
2) The reputational boost to the field of Existential Risk gained by the establishment of high-profile research centre in Cambridge.
3) The impact on policy and public perception that academic heavy-hitters like Rees and Price can have
Therefore we’ve been working with CSER behind the scenes over the last 9 months. Progress has been a little slow until now – Huw, Martin and Jaan are fully committed to this project, but due to their other responsibilities aren’t in a position to work full-time on it yet.
However, we’re now in a position to make CSER’s establishment official. Cambridge’s new Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) will host CSER and provide logistical support. I’ll be acting manager of CSER’s activities over the coming 6-12 months, under the guidance of Huw, Martin and Jaan. A generous seed funding donation from Jaan Tallinn is funding CSER’s establishment and these activities – which will include a lecture series, workshops, public outreach, and staff time on grant-writing and fundraising. It’ll also provide a buyout of a fraction of my time from FHI (providing funds for us to hire part-time staff to offload some of the FHI workload and help with some of the CSER work).
At the moment and over the next couple of months we’re going to be focused on identifying and working on additional academic funding opportunities for additional programmes, as well as chasing some promising leads in industry, private and philanthropic funding. I’ll also be aiming to keep CSER’s public profile active. There will be newsletters every three months (sign up here), the website’s going to be fleshed out to contain more detail about our planned research and existing literature, and we’ll be arranging regular high-quality media engagement. While we’re unlikely to have time to answer every general query that comes in (though we’ll try whenever possible: email: email@example.com), we’ll aim to keep the existential risk community informed through the newsletters and posts such as these.
We’ve been lucky to get a lot of support from the academic and existential risk community for the CSER centre. In addition to CRASSH, Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy will provide support in making policy-relevant links, and may co-host and co-publicise events. Luke Muehlhauser, MIRI’s Executive Director, has been very supportive and has provided valuable advice, and has generously offered to direct some of MIRI’s volunteer support towards CSER tasks. We also expect to get valuable support from the growing community around FHI.
From where I’m sitting, CSER’s successful launch is looking very promising. The timeline on our research programmes, however, is still a little more uncertain. If we’re successful with the European Research Council, we can expect to be hiring a full research team next spring. If not, it may take a little longer, but we’re exploring a number of different opportunities in parallel and are feeling confident. The support of the existential risk community continues to be invaluable.
Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh
Academic Manager, Future of Humanity Institute
Acting Academic Manager, Cambridge Centre for Study of Existential Risk.