Update on establishment of Cambridge’s Centre for Study of Existential Risk

by Sean_o_h2 min read12th Aug 201315 comments

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Organization UpdatesExistential Risk
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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: admin@cser.org), 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.

Thanks,

Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh
Academic Manager, Future of Humanity Institute 
Acting Academic Manager, Cambridge Centre for Study of Existential Risk.


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15 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:53 PM
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This is excellent news. I look forward to the invigorating effects of competition between the greatest university in the world and another university.

You sound like you're trying to be sarcastic, but I don't actually know what you're trying to say.

It's not at all sarcasm. I do think this is excellent news, I do think competition is (in standard cases) an excellent thing, and I do think that one of the universities is excellent.

I must admit it leaves me in a bit of a quandry. Now that I've got a foot in both camps, I have no idea who it's safe to support in the annual Water Polo and Tiddlywinks Intervarsity Grudge Match.

Currently this post has "125% positive" votes. I'm happy to see so much interest in x-risk reduction!

Earlier it was acting like it had -1 downvote. It says 100% positive now. Does anyone know whether the problem got fixed, or if someone just downvoted it?

A video lecture series? That would be great to have on YouTube.

And would provide awesome source material for an RSA animate style effort.

We'll make sure to get high-quality recordings.

In the meantime, the FHI's youtube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/FHIOxford/videos) may be of interest (talks from Tegmark, Bostrom, Armstrong, Sandberg, Yudkowsky, Omohundro, plus a recent animation of Bostrom's "Fable of the Dragon Tyrant").

The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant cartoon did make it to reddit with moderate upvotes IIRC.

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.

How'd it go?

Unfortunately it got to a very late stage but was not funded. While reviewers ranked it very highly, it was always a long shot - we were asking for a lot of money for what is not a "traditional" academic discipline. However, we think that there are several foundations that might be inclined to support the type of research programme proposed - we aim to submit proposals to these early this year.

(Note: we had the same result with an Arts and Humanities Research Counciul grant submitted this fall - highly-ranked but ultimately unsuccessful. Also should be good material for further applications).