Regular cell phones are so useful and have become so cheap that they have quickly become nearly a human universal. Smartphones are steadily getting cheaper and more common, and will soon be universal, even in very poor areas. The features present in this generation of phones will have major effects on the course of future events, just as the features of previous generations did. For example, the inclusion of cameras in cell phones has made many crimes and abuses of power harder to get away with. But there is a feature missing, an extremely important feature.

Consumer cell phones cannot send messages to satellites, not even emergency text messages, not even in a disaster area which major powers have decided to point all their antennas at, not even if you're willing to spend your whole battery on transmit power.

This is unacceptable. This is the difference between life and death in a wide variety of disaster scenarios, some of which are definitely going to happen. This is the difference between rescuers following GPS coordinates, and rescuers searching blindly. This is the difference between rescuers that leave immediately and rescuers that wait for a missing person report. This could be the difference between a genocide going unreported, and being deterred. Sending short messages from cell phones to satellites is technically feasible, although will require of coordination between cell phone makers and satellite owners and it may require launching new hardware into orbit. I do not believe that it would increase the cost of the phones themselves by much. This should work worldwide, and it should also be part of the United States FCC's Enhanced 911 requirements.

Many lives depend on this getting done. This affects existential risk. Who has the connections to make it happen?

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it may require launching new hardware into orbit

I don't think so. It would require more hardware on the phones because they don't normally have the range. But the existing satellite networks definitely have the capability for this. Since this would be for something like expensive, rare use, the bandwith use would be minimal. One could use the Iridium satellite network easily.

However, I'm not at all sure that this is a serious existential risk threat except in so far as any general stability increase is likely to reduce existential risk.

Practically, this is unlikely to occur. People are unlikely to request this sort of thing (people don't think generally about low risk situations) although it might be possible to spin it in the context of the recent unrest in the Middle East. But most people aren't going to want a phone feature that only is going to be used if absolutely everything is going to shit. And without enough people interested in it, there's now way the cell phone manufacturers are going to bother.

although it might be possible to spin it in the context of the recent unrest in the Middle East

Thinking about recent unrest in the Middle East seems to make the case considerably weaker---here are a handful of cases where things went pretty badly, but there was nothing even resembling a complete blackout of information.

Is there something I am missing?

There was a serious attempt at disrupting communications in Libya, which included both cutting international phone connections and active jamming of television signals. The cell phone network was offline for a month until rebels rewired it. While information flow was not completely cut off, because some people had satellite internet connectivity, it was greatly reduced, and the reduction was not in the volume of communication per person but in the number of people able to communicate. And we can't count on people having satellite dishes, because they're hard to hide, and banned in Iran.

I don't think so. It would require more hardware on the phones because they don't normally have the range. But the existing satellite networks definitely have the capability for this. Since this would be for something like expensive, rare use, the bandwith use would be minimal. One could use the Iridium satellite network easily.

I think it's either/or - upgrade phone hardware or upgrade the satellites and just the software on the phones. A satellite can see weaker signals by using a more strongly directed antenna. It would require heavier satellites and have narrower coverage that way, but it would work. Possibly very narrow - I don't have the relevant numbers - but if phones default to repeating their message for long enough then one satellite can still cover a large area by scanning it in a pattern.

If we can spinn it somehow to get goverments to compeet for having the best such coverage that might be a good way to get around the incentive problems.

Does the cell phone have to send it all the way to the satellite, or can it send to the tower, which then sends to the satellite?

It wouldn't work if the tower is down, but it would probably work in genocide cases. Until they start jamming signals, at least. The towers should be able to detect that as well.

Does the cell phone have to send it all the way to the satellite, or can it send to the tower, which then sends to the satellite?

If one has towers that are functional then this really doesn't seem useful. The most common uses would be when out of range of towers or when the towers are controlled by the government (such as in Libya).

I do not believe that making phones capable of contacting satellites, even just for texting, would be technically or economically simple; if it were, it would probably be at least an optional feature on many high-end phones. For developing countries in particular (to which most of your scenarios apply), the extra cost may very well be prohibitive.

First World users could probably afford a moderate increase in cellphone prices, but in the First World it's entirely possible to never leave regular coverage for extended time periods; and when you do, it's likely to either be in contexts wheres you would bring a separate GPS transmitter of some sort (extended camping / climbing trips, seafaring) or because you're somehow shielded from cell towers, in which case I don't know if satellite phones fare much better.

Many lives depend on this getting done.

As far as I know, a proposal that involves launching several new satellites will cost on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars (please correct me if the relevant hardware is cheaper in this case). As far as I know, hundreds of millions of dollars of medical spending even in some of the developed world can save thousands of lives.

So you really need to demonstrate the expected number of lives saved would be quite large. This seems to depend on some very strong claims about the availability of cell service. Do you have estimates of the number of people unserved by existing infrastructure, or who are unlikely to be served by infrastructure in the near future? Is there some reason that infrastructure will be unavailable in the case of disaster?

This could be the difference between a genocide going unreported, and being deterred.

This seems unlikely at face value. I have never heard of a situation in the modern world where there was complete information scarcity, such that isolated individual phone calls would significantly improve the situation. I have never seen any evidence that isolated reports of genocide have any positive effect as a deterrent. Could you describe in more detail the sort of situation you envision, or point to the evidence that led you to make this claim? (I am quite ignorant about these issues, so could be easily convinced by learning more.)

I have never heard of a situation in the modern world where there was complete information scarcity, such that isolated individual phone calls would significantly improve the situation.

Would you have, if there were?

If I were looking for such evidence (as I would be if I were making the proposal you are discussing) I would expect to be able to find it. Since I've never seen such evidence, presenting it to me would be a very good idea; if this is recognized and no evidence is forthcoming, I'd assume that there is none.

I place very low probability on the existence of significant political events whose occurrence is completely unknown to the world at large for many years. I can imagine lots of pieces of evidence that could cause me to update this belief.

The genocide avoidance angle is novel and interesting, and it clearly seems like a good idea, but I don't get the existential risk angle.

Dictators in general are bad for humanity's chances, since they sometimes try to acquire nuclear weapons and sometimes go crazy or play ultimatum games. Anything that makes becoming a dictator or retaining dictatorial power more difficult is a good thing. This would do that. In particular, it frees people from having to route all their messages through cell towers that may monitor or censor them, denying tyrants an important tool.

You seem to believe that mass popular movements necessarily result in saner governments. Depending on how you interpret the historical evidence, this seems at best like a shaky assumption, and at worst a thoroughly falsified one.

Dictators in general are bad for humanity's chances, since they sometimes try to acquire nuclear weapons and sometimes go crazy or play ultimatum games. A

It seems very difficult to get enough nukes to be a serious existential risk. Even a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would make things unpleasant but humanity would clearly survive. There's been no example since Stalin of a situation where a dictator had enough nuclear weaponry to start a nuclear war that had the opportunity to destroy humanity, and even then it is likely that a nuclear war in that time period would not have destroyed humanity completely.

Fewer dictators will reduce existential risk, but only at an indirect level since fewer dictators means fewer resources spent dealing with them and will be spent elsewhere, so there will be some small trickle down to things that decrease existential risk.

There's been no example since Stalin of a situation where a dictator had enough nuclear weaponry to start a nuclear war that had the opportunity to destroy humanity, and even then it is likely that a nuclear war in that time period would not have destroyed humanity completely.

I don't think Stalin qualifies even remotely. The Soviets tested their first thermonuclear bomb in summer 1953, a few months after Stalin's death. During his lifetime, they didn't amass more than a few dozen ordinary A-bombs of power similar to those that Americans delivered on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moreover, this was long before ICBMs, so the only delivery option were strategic bombers, and the quality of Soviet aviation left much to be desired. All in all, Stalin could hardly do more than wreck a few cities in Western Europe (if even that), with casualties and destruction probably lower than those of conventional WW2 bombing campaigns.

Ok. That's completely correct. In that case there's really never been an occasion when a dictator had the ability to cause an existential risk event.

Nikita Khrushchev doesn't count as a dictator?

::doesn't really know all that much about the Soviet Union::

No, not really. Khrushchev had to operate with the consent of the Politburo. The leading Party members were pretty aware of what happened with Stalin and didn't want it to happen again. During most of the post-Stalin era, the Soviet Union was run far more like a bureaucratic oligarchy than as a one-man dictatorship.

The connection is plausible (if thin, but then again that's always - thankfully - the case with x-risk).

Unfortunately, the majority of cellphone manufacturing happens in precisely the kind of country that (a) would not be enthusiastic about a market-inefficient scheme aimed at promoting freedom of information, and (b) possesses the politico-commercial clout to easily repel any but the largest outside pressuring in such sense.

I think the issue here is that connecting to satellite would require much greater signal strength, a different antenna design and a chipset for each satellite network you could contact (provided they each use a different coding and multiplexing scheme). You'd also probably need a handoff protocol of some kind, which could get really dicey. Basically, you'd be running into the same problems which prevent multi-network cellphones now, only far more aggressively plus have a range issue on top.

A simpler improvement would be to allow the cellphone to act as a powerful beacon. Basically, when the cellphone is put into emergency mode, it will transmit a strong signal every so often but will otherwise conserve power. This would solve the basic distress function very well.

An alternative: David Brin has proposed that cell phones should be capable of peer-to-peer text messaging when they can't connect with a tower.

(My father, a professor of electrical engineering, says that this proposal would be technically difficult to implement because cell phones transmit and receive on different frequencies.)

It also runs into a public good problem, unless turning off the functionality is somehow made impossible. Battery life of cell phones is inconveniently short as it is, and the last thing people want is to spend even more energy on routing strangers' messages. (If necessary, of course, they can turn it on just to send a message.)

Hams do this sort of thing already. If they could hook their G3 cell phone to a car battery and easily make it into a G3 APRS digipeater, they would do that too.

If the cell phone towers are down, maintaining a charge cell phone battery is near useless in current emergencies.

You need the distinct transmit/receive channels for full-duplex communication. The frequencies often only differ by <10MHz or so, with the uplink band being adjacent to the receiving band so they can share the same antenna an RF circuitry. The RF circuitry isn't the technical difficulty, it's in the software/firmware that is controlling the hardware. With some firmware/software changes, cell phones should be able to do some ham-APRS-like protocol.

The Hams have already solved this once using APRS at 144.39MHz, and it's dumb that we don't have a similar solution ported to cell phones at a convenient one of their working frequencies when not in reach of an on-line tower.

Satellite phones can currently be purchased by individuals or towns, and yet even the most affluent towns that fear being attacked don't appear to be purchasing them. A nonprofit could be set up to (in increasing order of importance)

  1. Donate satellite phones to more impoverished towns.
  2. Be a centralized location to which emergency messages can be sent.
  3. Actually do something about genocide beyond issuing a press release.

My guess is that 3. is the sticking point - that a satellite capability on cell phones is actually only helpful to lost Westerners outside the range of a cellular tower, and might be best marketed to hikers.

An even lower cost universal solution might involve green lasers and Morse code, though various governments will object.

I have to agree with this post. Everyone ALREADY knows about, for example, Darfur, and they didn't need any satellite cellphones for it. Nothing got done about it. The amount that this would help people seems trivial to the hundreds of possible and obvious other interventions money could be spent on.

I think it is obvious that the desirability of this proposal is not obvious to an educated observer. If you believe the proposal important, the most important first step is not having connections (at least not to the political apparatus) but creating and presenting a compelling argument for its desirability.

For example: provide or reference more precise accounts of recent unrest, and present evidence that complete blackouts are a serious possibility. Provide evidence, or at least tell us why you believe, that receiving isolated communications could initiate a productive global response, or disincentivize tyranny. Provide evidence either that entire populations are unlikely to have access to traditional communication channels in the near future, or that a despot could cut off such channels without immediately causing much more alarm than any number of distress calls. Consider solutions that cost less than $100M, and conclude that they are not as cost-effective or not as easily implemented by government intervention. Etc.

In general, it seems to me that the world would be in a better state if we as a society had dismissed all proposals of the form "We should require providers of X to also provide Y" which didn't have very, very persuasive justification. So, taking the outside view, I am incredibly skeptical of any proposed regulation of this type.

This is pretty wrong. Cell phones that can talk to satellites do exist. They are expensive and people don't feel like buying them.

Mobile cell phone base stations can be moved around and put where needed. If you have an area with people in it that can't communicate, then already we have the abiltiy to send other people in with cell base stations and set them up. If people can't get to a population that has lost touch to see what's up, it means they can't or won't. "Falling off the grid" is enough of a cry for help already for a terrestrial population.

Cell is not the only way to communicate. Plenty of long distance radio communications exist. For a few hundred bucks you can buy a ham radio that will let you communicate 1/4 of the way around the world without breaking a sweat. If you think this is important, buy one and keep it in your safe room with your 3 years of canned food, bottled water, generators, rifles and dieself fuel. Whatever happens you will have a superb chance of reaching another ham operator out of your area and telling giving her the 411 on your 911.

The point of cell is CHEAP and UBIQUITOUS. Saying every cell should be able to reach a satellite in case of emergency is like saying every car should be able to do 200 mph and carry 5000 pounds of freight. It is not an idea that anybody who understands economics or engineering would resonate with.

Yes, satellite phones are expensive, heavy and bulky. However, that is almost entirely the result of features that aren't needed for emergency use: ability to receive (as opposed to just sending), bandwidth sufficient for voice calls, and reserved capacity for routine use. Eliminate these requirements, and it gets a whole lot cheaper and easier. Add a parabolic dish to the receiving satellite, and it wouldn't even require any hardware changes to the phone, just firmware changes.

Cell-to-satellite communication can be cheap and ubiquitous, it just isn't because no one's tried to make it so.