Cool risks outside the envelope of nature

How do we apply the precautionary principle to exotic, low-probability risks?

The CUORE collaboration at the INFN Gran Sasso National Laboratory recently set a world record by cooling a cubic meter 400 kg copper vessel down to 6 milliKelvins: it was the coldest cubic meter in the universe for over 15 days. Yay! Applause! (And the rest of this post should in no way be construed as a criticism of the experiment)

Cold and weird risks

CrystalsI have not been able to dig up the project documentation, but I would be astonished if there was any discussion of risk due to the experiment. After all, cooling things is rarely dangerous. We do not have any physical theories saying there could be anything risky here. No doubt there are risk assessment of liquid nitrogen or helium practical risks somewhere, but no analysis of any basic physics risks.

Compare this to the debates around the LHC, where critics at least could point to papers suggesting that strangelets, small black holes and vacuum decay were theoretically possible. Yet the LHC could argue back that particle processes like those occurring in the accelerator were already naturally occurring almost everywhere: if the LHC was risky, we ought to see plenty of explosions in the sky. Leaving aside the complications of correcting for anthropic bias, this kind of argument seems reasonably solid: if you do something that is within the envelope of what happens in the universe normally and there are no observed super-dangerous processes linked to it, then this activity is likely fine. We might wish for careful risk assessment, but given that the activity is already happening it can be viewed as just as benign as the normal activity of the universe.

However, the CUORE experiment is actually going outside of the envelope of what we think is going on in the universe. In the past, the universe has been hotter, so there would not have been any large masses at 6 milliKelvins. And with a 3 Kelvin background temperature, there would not be any natural objects this cold. (Since 1995 there have been small Bose-Einstein condensates in the hundred nanoKelvin range on Earth, but the argument is the same.)

How risky is it to generate such an outside of the envelope phenomenon? There is no evidence from the past. There is no cause for alarm given the known laws of physics. Yet this lack of evidence does not argue against risk either. Maybe there is an ice-9 like phase transition of matter below a certain temperature. Maybe it implodes into a black hole because of some macroscale quantum(gravity) effect. Maybe the alien spacegods get angry. There is an endless number of possible hypotheses that cannot be ruled out.

We might think that such “small theories” can safely be ignored. But we have some potential evidence that the universe may be riskier than it looks: the Fermi paradox, the apparent absence of alien intelligence. If we are alone, it is either because there are one or more steps in the evolution of life and intelligence that are very unlikely (the “great filter” is behind us), or there is a high likelihood that intelligence disappears without a trace (a future great filter). Now, we might freely assign our probabilities to (1) that there are aliens around, (2) that the filter is behind us, and (3) that it is ahead. However, given our ignorance we cannot rationally give zero probability to any of these possibilities, and probably not even give any of them less than 1% (since that is about the natural lowest error rate of humans on anything). Anybody saying one of them is less likely than one in a million is likely very overconfident. Yet a 1% risk of a future great filter implies a huge threat. It is a threat that not only reliably wipes out intelligent life, but also does it to civilizations aware of its potential existence!

We then have a slightly odd reason to be slightly concerned with experiments like CUORE. We know there is some probability that intelligence gets reliably wiped out. We know intelligence is likely to explore conditions not found in the natural universe. So a potential explanation could be that there is some threat in this exploration. The probability is not enormous – we might think the filter is behind us or the universe is teeming with aliens, and even if there is a future filter there are many possibilities for what it could be besides low-temperature physics – but nearly any non-infinitesimal probability multiplied by the value of our species (at least 7 billion lives) tends to lead to a too large risk.


A tad chillyAt this point the precautionary principle rears its stupid head (the ugly head is asleep). The stupid head argues that we should hence never do anything that is outside the natural envelope.

The ugly head would argue we should investigate before doing anything risky, but since in this case the empirical studying is causing the risk the head would hence advice just trying out theoretical risk scenarios – not very useful given that we are dealing with something where all potential risk comes from scenarios unconstrained by evidence!

We cannot obey the stupid head much, since most human activity is about pushing the envelope. We are trying to have more and happier people than has ever existed in the universe before. Maybe that is risky (compare to Stapledon’s Last and First Men where it turned out to be dangerous to have too much intelligence in one spot), but it is both practically hard to prevent and this kind of open-ended “let’s not do anything that has not happened in the past” seems unreasonable given that most events are new ones and generally do not lead to disasters. But the pushing of the envelope into radically new directions does carry undefinable risk. We cannot avoid that. What we can do is to discuss whether we are willing to take on such hard to pin down risk.

However, this example also shows a way precaution can break down. Nobody has, to my knowledge, worried about cooling down matter besides me. There is no concerned group urging precaution since there is no empirical nor normative reason to think there is anything wrong specifically with CUORE: we only have a general Fermi paradox-induced inchoate worry. Yet proper precaution requires considering weak possibilities. I suspect that most future big new disasters will turn out to have avoided precautionary considerations just because there was no obvious reason to invoke the principle.


Many people are scared more by uncertainty than actual risk. But we cannot escape it. Especially if we want to reduce existential risk, which tends to be more uncertain than most. This little essay is about some of the really tricky limits to what we can know about new risks. We should expect them to be unexpected. And we should expect that the standard decision methods will not behave sensibly.

As for the CUORE team, I wish them the best of luck to find neutrinoless double beta decay. But they should keep an eye open for weird anomalies too – they have a chance to peek outside the envelope of the natural in a well controlled setting, and that is valuable.

Anthropic negatives

Inverted cumulusStuart Armstrong has come up with another twist on the anthropic shadow phenomenon. If existential risk needs two kinds of disasters to coincide in order to kill everybody, then observers will notice the disaster types to be anticorrelated.

The minimal example would be if each risk had 50% independent chance of happening: then the observable correlation coefficient would be -0.5 (not -1, since there is 1/3 chance to get neither risk; the possible outcomes are: no event, risk A, and risk B). If the probability of no disaster happening is N/(N+2) and the risks are equal 1/(N+2), then the correlation will be -1/(N+1).

I tried a slightly more elaborate model. Assume X and Y to be independent power-law distributed disasters (say war and pestillence outbreaks), and that if X+Y is larger than seven billion no observers will remain to see the outcome. If we ramp up their size (by multiplying X and Y with some constant) we get the following behaviour (for alpha=3):

(Top) correlation between observed power-law distributed independent variables multiplied by an increasing multiplier, where observation is contingent on their sum being smaller than 7 billion. Each point corresponds to 100,000 trials. (Bottom) Fraction of trials where observers were wiped out.
(Top) correlation between observed power-law distributed independent variables multiplied by an increasing multiplier, where observation is contingent on their sum being smaller than 7 billion. Each point corresponds to 100,000 trials. (Bottom) Fraction of trials where observers were wiped out.

As the situation gets more deadly the correlation becomes more negative. This also happens when allowing the exponent run from the very fat (alpha=1) to the thinner (alpha=3):

(top) Correlation between observed independent power-law distributed variables  (where observability requires their sum to be smaller than seven billion) for different exponents. (Bottom) fraction of trials ending in existential disaster. Multiplier=500 million.
(top) Correlation between observed independent power-law distributed variables (where observability requires their sum to be smaller than seven billion) for different exponents. (Bottom) fraction of trials ending in existential disaster. Multiplier=500 million.

The same thing also happens if we multiply X and Y.

I like the phenomenon: it gives us a way to look for anthropic effects by looking for suspicious anticorrelations. In particular, for the same variable the correlation ought to shift from near zero for small cases to negative for large cases. One prediction might be that periods of high superpower tension would be anticorrelated with mishaps in the nuclear weapon control systems. Of course, getting the data might be another matter. We might start by looking at extant companies with multiple risk factors like insurance companies and see if capital risk becomes anticorrelated with insurance risk at the high end.

Happy Petrov Day!

Nuclear war is badOn Practical Ethics I blog about Petrov Day: the anniversary of an avoided nuclear cataclysm.

The lovely thing about this incident is that there is a person to focus on, making existential risk dramatically real. The LessWrong community has developed a ritual to commemorate the event and make our individual responsibility for reducing existential risk more vivid.

Averted disasters are hard to see, so we need more and bigger monuments to people who averted things.

Objectively evil technology

Dangerous partGeorge Dvorsky has a post on io9: 10 Horrifying Technologies That Should Never Be Allowed To Exist. It is a nice clickbaity overview of some very bad technologies:

  1. Weaponized nanotechnology (he mainly mentions ecophagy, but one can easily come up with other nasties like ‘smart poisons’ that creep up on you or gremlin devices that prevent technology – or organisms – from functioning)
  2. Conscious machines (making devices that can suffer is not a good idea)
  3. Artificial superintelligence (modulo friendliness)
  4. Time travel
  5. Mind reading devices (because of totalitarian uses)
  6. Brain hacking devices
  7. Autonomous robots programmed to kill humans
  8. Weaponized pathogens
  9. Virtual prisons and punishment
  10. Hell engineering (that is, effective production of super-adverse experiences; consider Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail, or the various strange/silly/terrifying issues linked to Roko’s basilisk)

Some of the these technologies exist, like weaponized pathogens. Others might be impossible, like time travel. Some are embryonic like mind reading (we can decode some brainstates, but it requires spending a while in a big scanner as the input-output mapping is learned).

A commenter on the post asked “Who will have the responsibility of classifying and preventing “objectively evil” technology?” The answer is of course People Who Have Ph.D.s in Philosophy.

Unfortunately I haven’t got one, but that will not stop me.

Existential risk as evil?

I wonder what unifies this list. Let’s see: 1, 3, 7, and 8 are all about danger: either the risk of a lot of death, or the risk of extinction. 2, 9 and 10 are all about disvalue: the creation of very negative states of experience. 5 and 6 are threats to autonomy.

4, time travel, is the odd one out: George suggests that it is dangerous, but this is based on fictional examples, and that contact between different civilizations has never ended well (which is arguable: Japan). I can imagine a consistent universe with time travel might be bad for people’s sense of free will, and if you have time loops you can do super-powerful computation (getting superintelligence risk), but I do not think of any kind of plausible physics where time travel itself is dangerous. Fiction just makes up dangers to make the plot move on.

In the existential risk framework, it is worth noting that extinction is not the only kind of existential risk. We could mess things up so that humanity’s full potential never gets realized (for example by being locked into a perennial totalitarian system that is actually resistant to any change), or that we make the world hellish. These are axiological existential risks. So the unifying aspect of these technologies is that they could cause existential risk, or at least bad enough approximations.

Ethically, existential threats count a lot. They seem to have priority over mere disasters and other moral problems in a wide range of moral systems (not just consequentialism). So technologies that strongly increase existential risk without giving a commensurate benefit (for example by reducing other existential risks more – consider a global surveillance state, which might be a decent defence against people developing bio-, nano- and info-risks at the price of totalitarian risk) are indeed impermissible. In reality technologies have dual uses and the eventual risk impact can be hard to estimate, but the principle is reasonable even if implementation will be a nightmare.

Messy values

However, extinction risk is an easy category – even if some of the possible causes like superintelligence are weird and controversial, at least extinct means extinct. The value and autonomy risks are far trickier. First, we might be wrong about value: maybe suffering doesn’t actually count morally, we just think it does. So a technology that looks like it harms value badly like hell engineering actually doesn’t. This might seem crazy, but we should recognize that some things might be important but we do not recognize them. Francis Fukuyama thought transhumanist enhancement might harm some mysterious ‘Factor X’ (i.e. a “soul) giving us dignity that is not widely recognized. Nick Bostrom (while rejecting the Factor X argument) has suggested that there might be many “quiet values” important for diginity, taking second seat to the “loud” values like alleviation of suffering but still being important – a world where all quiet values disappear could be a very bad world even if there was no suffering (think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for example). This is one reason why many superintelligence scenarios end badly: transmitting the full nuanced world of human values – many so quiet that we do not even recognize them ourselves before we lose them – is very hard. I suspect that most people find it unlikely that loud values like happiness or autonomy actually are parochial and worthless, but we could be wrong. This means that there will always be a fair bit of moral uncertainty about axiological existential risks, and hence about technologies that may threaten value. Just consider the argument between Fukuyama and us transhumanists.

Second, autonomy threats are also tricky because autonomy might not be all that it is cracked up to be in western philosophy. The atomic free-willed individual is rather divorced from the actual neural and social matrix creature. But even if one doesn’t buy autonomy as having intrinsic value, there are likely good cybernetic arguments for why maintaining individuals as individuals with their own minds is a good thing. I often point to David Brin’s excellent defence of the open society where he points out that societies where criticism and error correction are not possible will tend to become corrupt, inefficient and increasingly run by the preferences of the dominant cadre. In the end they will work badly for nearly everybody and have a fair risk of crashing. Tools like surveillance, thought reading or mind control would potentially break this beneficial feedback by silencing criticism. They might also instil identical preferences, which seems to be a recipe for common mode errors causing big breakdowns: monocultures are more vulnerable than richer ecosystems. Still, it is not obvious that these benefits could not exist in (say) a group-mind where individuality is also part of a bigger collective mind.

Criteria and weasel-words

These caveats aside, I think the criteria for “objectively evil technology” could be

(1) It predictably increases existential risk substantially without commensurate benefits,


(2) it predictably increases the amount of death, suffering or other forms of disvalue significantly without commensurate benefits.

There are unpredictable bad technologies, but they are not immoral to develop. However, developers do have a responsibility to think carefully about the possible implications or uses of their technology. And if your baby-tickling machine involves black holes you have a good reason to be cautious.

Of course, “commensurate” is going to be the tricky word here. Is a halving of nuclear weapons and biowarfare risk good enough to accept a doubling of superintelligence risk? Is a tiny probability existential risk (say from a physics experiment) worth interesting scientific findings that will be known by humanity through the entire future? The MaxiPOK principle would argue that the benefits do not matter or weigh rather lightly. The current gain-of-function debate show that we can have profound disagreements – but also that we can try to construct institutions and methods that regulate the balance, or inventions that reduce the risk. This also shows the benefit of looking at larger systems than the technology itself: a potentially dangerous technology wielded responsibly can be OK if the responsibility is reliable enough, and if we can bring a safeguard technology into place before the risky technology it might no longer be unacceptable.

The second weasel word is “significantly”. Do landmines count? I think one can make the case. According to the UN they kill 15,000 to 20,000 people per year. The number of traffic fatalities per year worldwide is about 1.2 million deaths – but we might think cars are actually so beneficial that it outweighs the many deaths.


The landmines are intended to harm (yes, the ideal use is to make people rationally stay the heck away from mined areas, but the harming is inherent in the purpose) while cars are not. This might lead to an amendment of the second criterion:

(2′) The technology  intentionally increases the amount of death, suffering or other forms of disvalue significantly without commensurate benefits.

This gets closer to how many would view things: technologies intended to cause harm are inherently evil. But being a consequentialist I think it let’s designers off the hook. Dr Guillotine believed his invention would reduce suffering (and it might have) but it also led to a lot more death. Dr Gatling invented his gun to “reduce the size of armies and so reduce the number of deaths by combat and disease, and to show how futile war is.” So the intention part is problematic.

Some people are concerned with autonomous weapons because they are non-moral agents making life-and-death decisions over people; they would use deontological principles to argue that making such amoral devices are wrong. But a landmine that has been designed to try to identify civilians and not blow up around them seems to be a better device than an indiscriminate device: the amorality of the decisionmaking is less of problematic than the general harmfulness of the device.

I suspect trying to bake in intentionality or other deontological concepts will be problematic. Just as human dignity (another obvious concept – “Devices intended to degrade human dignity are impermissible”) is likely a non-starter. They are still useful heuristics, though. We do not want too much brainpower spent on inventing better ways of harming or degrading people.

Policy and governance: the final frontier

In the end, this exercise can be continued indefinitely. And no doubt it will.

Given the general impotence of ethical arguments to change policy (it usually picks up the pieces and explains what went wrong once it does go wrong) a more relevant question might be how a civilization can avoid developing things it has a good reason to suspect are a bad idea. I suspect the answer to that is going to be not just improvements in coordination and the ability to predict consequences, but some real innovations in governance under empirical and normative uncertainty.

But that is for another day.