Russian x-risks newsletter, summer 2019

by avturchin3 min read7th Sep 20195 comments


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This is the first Russian x-risks newsletter, which will present news about Russia and global catastrophic risks from the last 3 months.

Given the combination of high technological capabilities, poor management, high risk tolerance and attempts to catch up with West and China in the military sphere, Russia is prone to technological catastrophes. It has a 10 times higher level of aviation catastrophes and car accidents than developed countries.

Thus it seems possible that a future global catastrophe may be somehow connected with Russia. However, most of the work in global catastrophic and existential risk (x-risks) prevention and policy efforts are happening in the West, especially in US, UK and Sweden. Even the best policies adopted by the governments of these countries may not help if a catastrophe occurs in another country or countries.

This newsletter will help to inform the Western public of activity relative to x-risks in Russia. All information presented here is based on open sources. However, these sources require some systematisation and debiasing. For example, some Russian news sources tend to present situation as worse than they are just to attract attention. Another source of biases is the ongoing new cold war.

This is the first test issue of the newsletter, which I will issue every 3 months. I will publish it on LessWrong, the existential risk subreddit and existential risk Facebook page. I do not currently have a subscription option available. Below are news for summer 2019:

1. “Planetary catastrophe” was prevented after a fire aboard the deepwater nuclear submarine Losharick “by the dead heroes” on its crew, as was said during the funeral for the victims. Most likely, this was just rhetoric. However, a more ominous but less probable interpretation is that the catastrophe was somehow connected with the Poseidon nuclear torpedo, which is said to be capable of carrying a 100 megaton cobalt-salted bomb (still not a planetary catastrophe, even if it explodes in a harbour, but surely a regional one). This is, however, unlikely, as Losharik is a small submarine, incapable of carrying such a large system.

2. Russia’s biggest state-owned bank, Sberbank, said that AI could be the last invention of humanity. Sberbank chairman German Gref is known for his technoprogressivist views; as well as one of the main investors in AI development; the bank invited Bostrom to its conference. While these views are not an official position of the Russian government, the government does own a large stake in the bank, and recently developed plans that AI will be developed in Russia by large, government-owned companies, including Sberbank. One 30 May 2019, Putin held a meeting about national AI strategy, and Gref was the first who spoke. Putin reiterated that anyone who has a monopoly on AI will be the ruler of the world. The plan is to increase the share of companies that are using AI; to create an AI capable of solving more wider tasks; to create a Russian AI chip; and to reach the top 10 list of countries in terms of citations of scientific research about AI. However, the allocated budget is rather small—1.5 bln USD for 6 years—much less than is allocated for national AI strategies in other countries. It should also be noted that what Putin says doesn’t automatically becomes reality: he used to say a lot about democracy, wage increases, etc., while actual disposable income is constantly declining.

3. Putin warned against wind energy, as he claimed it could kill worms in the ground: He said: “Will people be comfortable living on a planet lined with a picket fence of windmills and covered with several layers of solar panels? How many birds die due to windmills! They shake so much that worms crawl out of the ground”. The claim about birds may have some merit, but the claim about worms is obviously false and intended to mock environmentalists. Despite this, grassroots environmental awareness is growing in Russia, especially connected with illegal dumps, one of which almost led to a plane crash on the 8th of August. An illegal dump near an airport attracted birds, which were sucked into both engines of an Airbus; it miraculously landed on a field nearby. Personally, I was going to fly this airplane on the same route that day, but in the opposite direction, so I saw on arrival the bags of people that had been removed from the crash-landed plane (nobody died, but there were injuries).

4. Russian forest fires were claimed to be a planetary catastrophe (before the Amazonian ones came to overshadow those in Siberia in the news). The official area of the fire is around 30 000 km, but could be larger. They are probably connected with illegal logging and drying of wetlands, resulting in firestorms, which releases soot to higher levels of the atmosphere, much like the phenomenon leading to nuclear winter. There is a 1984 article by Roland describing how the USSR could start an artificial nuclear winter by nuking its taiga.

5. Kardashev, the inventor of the Kardashev scale of supercivilizations, died at 87. He continued scientific work until his last days, and I was pleased to be able to speak (as usual, about the risks of SETI and ETI in general) a couple of times at his seminar about SETI. His last video is here, in which he spoke about the possibility of SETI via wormholes.

6. Targeted bioweapons? There was an article in the Guardian about the possibility of racially targeted bioweapons. Russia is not allowing citizens export of biosamples because of the fear that they will be used to create targeted bioweapons. This creates problems for Russian citizens who wish to use services such as 23andMe, as exporting genetic samples is illegal. However, one can travel abroad and leave biosamples there.

7. There was another nuclear accident in Northern Russia on 8th August in Severodvinsk. Probably a meltdown of a small nuclear reactor, which powers the “eternal” cruise missile Burevestnik. CNN reported that it may be an accident connected with a Russian Doomsday weapon; however, a nuclear-powered cruise missile is not a Doomsday weapon, as it can carry only a conventional nuke. The real doomsday weapon is the Poseidon salted 100 MT torpedo.

Interesting fact: there is a widespread Russian belief that August is the month of catastrophes. This observation results from some combination of coincidences, relaxed work during vacations, a practice of testing new weapons systems during short summer months, as well as temperature effects on building materials. For example, the recent plane crash mentioned above was related to the increased activity of birds during summer, and two recent nuclear accidents are related to activity by the Northern fleet, the operation of which is limited at other times of the year by ice.


5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:12 AM
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I wonder whether there is a reason this is not on the front page?

Not a super clear cut, but one of the frontpage rules we use is "timelessness", where a post is likely to still be relevant in at least a year or two. News generally doesn't fall into that category. I think the content of the post is more timeless than average news, but still felt a bit too newsy to me. But I don't think it's an obvious call in this case and am open to arguments otherwise. 

Yes, it's news, but so is much else we post to some greater or lesser degree, and for comparison if the Alignment Newsletter is worthy of frontpage then arguably so should this be on arguments of type alone.

I also think it's valuable for a wider audience to see, but maybe that's beside the point, since many things could be valuable for many to see but might not meet frontpage guidelines for one reason or another.

Really great to see this sort of work, separate from the typical US centric view.

Thanks for the updates!