Crossposted to LessWrong.
We (the Cambridge Existential Risks Initiative) ran an Existential Risks Introductory Course (ERIC) in the first quarter of 2022, aiming to introduce the field of existential risks, without being explicitly associated with any particular philosophy. We expect the programme to be most useful to people who are new to this field, and we hypothesised that we may be able to reach a different target audience by not explicitly branding it as EA.
The full curriculum we used for the programme, along with exercises and organisation spotlights, can be found here. This was primarily designed by Callum McDougall, with some inputs from the rest of the CERI team.
If you are interested in joining the next iteration of the course in Winter 2022 (either as a participant or as a facilitator), please fill out this interest form.
This post contains an overview of the course, which is followed by an abbreviated version of the syllabus for the ease of gathering feedback. The weekly summaries may also be helpful for community builders looking for summaries of any of the core readings from our syllabus.
We welcome any feedback on the content, exercises or anything else pertaining to the course, either here publicly on the Forum, or you can also reach out to us privately if you prefer that.
The course consists of 8 weeks of reading (split into core and applied). Some weeks also include exercises, which participants are encouraged to complete and discuss in the session. Each week, participants will meet for 1.5 hour sessions where they will discuss the material and exercises with a facilitator.
The topics for each week are as follows:
- Week 1: Introduction to Existential Risks
Provides an introduction to x-risks, why they might be both highly important and neglected, and introduces some important terminology.
- Week 2: Natural & Anthropogenic Risks
Discusses natural risks, and risks from nuclear war and climate change.
- Week 3: Biosecurity, And How To Think About Future Risks
Discusses risks from engineered pandemics, as well as a broader look at future risks in general and how we can reason about them and prepare for them.
- Week 4: Unaligned Artificial Intelligence
Discusses risks from unaligned AI, and provides a brief overview of the different approaches that are being taken to try and solve the problem.
- Week 5: Dystopias, Lock-in & Unknown Unknowns
Concludes the discussion of specific risks by discussing some more neglected risks. Also includes a discussion of the “unknown unknowns” problem, and how we can categorise and assess probabilities of risks.
- Week 6: Forecasting & Decision-making
Moves away from specific risks, and discusses broad strategies that can help mitigate a variety of risks, with a focus on improving forecasting and decision-making (both at the institutional and individual level).
- Week 7: Different Frameworks for Existential Risk
Further explores some alternative frameworks for x-risks than those found in The Precipice, e.g. FHI’s origin/scaling/endgame model, and the “Democratising Risk” paper.
- Week 8: Next Steps
Concludes the fellowship with a lookback on the key themes in the material, and a discussion of how the fellows plan to put what they’ve learned into action (e.g. in their future careers).
Abbreviated curriculum (Core readings)
Week 1: Introduction to Existential Risks
The first group of core materials here outlines the key ideas of Toby Ord’s book The Precipice, that we may be living in a uniquely important and dangerous time thanks to the threat of existential risks.
- What are the most important moral problems of our time? (10 mins.)
- The Precipice: Introduction, Chapters 1 & 2 (pages 3 - 64) (100 mins.)
- All Possible Views About Humanity’s Future Are Wild (15 mins.)
However, it is important to know that not everyone in the existential risks field shares these views, and there have been alternative framings proposed. The paper below discusses the drawbacks with the “Techno-Utopian Approach” to x-risks, as exemplified by books like The Precipice. We will read more of it in later sessions, but for now it is important to be aware that there are other ways of thinking about these issues.
- Democratising Risk: In Search of a Methodology to Study Existential Risk(Introduction) (5 mins.)
Finally, please check out these, which relate to how we’d like you to approach our discussion sessions:
- Why "scout mindset" is crucial to good judgement | Julia Galef | TEDxPSU (video - 12 mins.)
- Fox vs. Hedgehog - Explanation and examples (3 mins.)
Week 2: Natural & Anthropogenic Risks
In Week 2 we start to investigate specific existential risks.
We will focus on anthropogenic risks, which arise from unique features of human society or current technology. Unlike natural risks, we can’t point to the historical record as evidence for their probability being small, meaning we could plausibly be facing more risk from them than we have at any previous time in history.
- The Precipice: Chapters 3 & 4 summary notes (30 mins.)
- 80,000 Hours problem profiles: Climate Change (40 mins.)
80,000 Hours problem profiles: Nuclear Security (15 mins.)
- What is the likelihood that civilizational collapse would directly lead to human extinction (within decades)? | Luisa Rodriguez (15 mins.)
Week 3: Biosecurity, And How To Think About Future Risks
During Week 3, we will focus on the first of two particularly significant risks from future technology: engineered pathogens. We discuss some past examples of bioweapon misuse or bioresearch accidents, as well as the kind of organisations and protocols that exist to make these events less likely.
- The Precipice: Chapter 5, Future Risks (just pages 121 - 137) (30 mins.)
- 80,000 Hours problem profiles: Global catastrophic biological risks
- Project Ideas in Biosecurity for EAs
We will also discuss the different ways we can think about risks from future technology, for instance through the lens of the unilateralist’s curse (the idea that in any group, decisions made by individuals that have a significant impact on the rest of the group will be systematically made more than they should, and this problem grows as the group grows).
- The Vulnerable World Hypothesis, pages 1-8 | Nick Bostrom (35 mins.)
- The Unilateralist’s Curse (definition) | EA Forum (5 mins.)
- Information Hazards in Biotechnology | Greg Lewis (25 mins.)
Week 4: Unaligned Artificial Intelligence
In Week 4, we turn our attention to the second major risk from future technology: unaligned artificial intelligence.
AI safety is a large field (it has 2 separate 8-week fellowships at Cambridge alone!). In this session, we hope to give you an overview of the key ideas: why AI could be transformative to society, why it poses risks which humanity may be currently unsuited to handle, and some of the different approaches that are being taken to try and make it go well.
- Superintelligence, Chapter 7: The Superintelligent Will | Nick Bostrom (25 mins.)
- What Failure Looks Like | Paul Christiano (15 mins.)
- Specification Gaming: the flipside of AI ingenuity | DeepMind Safety Team (15 mins.)
- AGI Safety From First Principles | Richard Ngo (70 mins.)
Week 5: Dystopias, Lock-in & Unknown Unknowns
This week, we’ll conclude our discussion of specific risks. We will cover dystopias (defined as a world with a functioning civilisation, but is locked into a terrible form), and extreme suffering risks (or s-risks).
- The Precipice: Chapter 5, Future Risks (just pages 153-162) (20 mins.)
- The Precipice: Chapter 6, The Risk Landscape (pages 165 - 186) (35 mins.)
- The Vulnerable World Hypothesis, pages 8-16 | Nick Bostrom (40 mins.)
- S-risks: Why they are the worst existential risks, and how to prevent them | EAG Boston 2017 (20 mins.)
Additionally, many of the risks we have discussed so far wouldn’t have occurred to researchers 50 years ago, which could make us suspect the existence of other currently unknown risks, which make themselves known as technology advances. We will discuss the possibility of such “unknown unknowns”, and what they imply for work on existential risks.
- The Importance of Unknown Existential Risks (15 mins.)
Finally, we will also provide an overview of the risk landscape, and discuss the probabilities that Ord puts on each of the risks he discusses.
- Point of View: Bioengineering horizon scan 2020 (40 mins.)
- Some thoughts on Toby Ord’s existential risk estimates (15 mins.)
Week 6: Forecasting & Decision-making
Week 6 marks a movement away from discussing specific risks, and towards the kinds of broad strategies that can help mitigate a variety of risks. We will focus on how to improve forecasting & decision-making — both within organisations and at the individual level.
- The Precipice: Chapter 7, Safeguarding Humanity (pages 187 - 216) (50 mins.)
- Global priorities research (20 mins.)
- A Better Crystal Ball | Scoblic & Tetlock (20 mins.)
- Evidence, cluelessness, and the long term | Hilary Greaves (30 mins.) (or this YouTube talk)
Week 7: Different Frameworks for Existential Risk
This week, we will discuss some different responses to the problem of existential risks. One influential school of thought is longtermism - the idea that the very long-run future impact of our actions should represent our dominant moral consideration. However, not all frameworks for thinking about x-risks need to go hand-in-hand with longtermism; in fact an over-focus on longtermism may pose some serious problems. The recently-published Democratising Risk paper offers an alternative path for the field.
- Democratising Risk: In Search of a Methodology to Study Existential Risk (60 mins.)
- Defence in Depth Against Human Extinction | FHI (35 mins.)
- Letter from Utopia | Nick Bostrom (15 mins.)
- Existential Risk and Existential Hope: Definitions | Owen Cotton-Barratt, Toby Ord(10 mins.)
Week 8: Next Steps
One of the main ways in which we can affect the world for the better is through our careers. For this final week we hope to help you think about potential next steps for applying the ideas of existential risk reduction or longtermism to your own life and career.
- The Case For Reducing Existential Risks | 80000 Hours
- How to use your career to help reduce existential risk | 80000 Hours
- Everyday Longtermism | Owen Cotton-Barratt
Click here for the full version of the curriculum, which contains additional readings, exercises, and organisation spotlights. If you are planning to run a similar programme at your local group, please do reach out to us, as we may also be able to share our facilitators’ guide and other resources.
Ways in which you can help
Call for facilitators
If you would be interested in facilitating this course when it is run again in Winter 2022, we would love to hear from you.
The course will be virtual as default. Familiarity with the core concepts of x-risks is desirable, but you don’t have to be an expert in order to facilitate. This is designed as an introductory fellowship, so far more important are good communication skills, and an ability to stimulate productive and interesting conversations among the fellows. Overall, being a facilitator is a great way to help with outreach and field-building, as well as improve your communication skills. I can say that I’ve personally thoroughly enjoyed the experience!
If this sounds like it might be a good fit for you or someone you know, the expression of interest form can be found here.
Call for fellows
If you or anyone you know might be interested in participating in this course, please fill out the expression of interest form here. We welcome people from all backgrounds and career stages!
Call for feedback
We would be particularly interested in hearing if you have suggestions for:
- How to improve the balance of the curriculum by reducing the focus on Toby Ord and Nick Bostrom’s writings, and introducing some different perspectives,
- Material discussing climate change as an existential risk,
- Material focusing on solutions as well as problems (i.e. which research directions in x-risk reduction seem promising, and what work in the field tends to look like)
- Suggestions for how we could improve the marketing of this course (i.e. places it could be advertised)
Added to the list of courses here.
Thank you for making this! This looks great. I've added it to the list of AI safety courses.
It's not on just technical AI safety but I feel like it's related enough that anybody looking at the list will also be interested in this resource.
Suggestion: If the goal is to attract non-EAs, I might change the title to be more legible to people who don't know what an existential risk is.
That's something we've definitely considered, but the idea is for this course to be marketed mainly via CERI, and since they already have existential risks in their name plus define it in a lot of their promo material, we felt like it would probably be more appropriate to stick with that terminology.
Thank you for taking the time to make this publicly available.
This course seems interesting.
Thank you for making this.
And lastly I filled the interest form but still didn't receive any developments about the course or my acceptance?
Hi, thanks for sharing this!
One clarification: given that the course is almost 100% EA/longtermist in content and structure (with the exception of just under half of week 7), does the mention of introducing existential risk without being explicitly associated with any particular philosophy refer to 1) intending to provide an even-handed introduction to the field, or 2) using the concept of existential risk as an EA/longtermism recruitment approach?
I see trade-offs with using either approach. 2) may lead to further impact down the line through career-alignment, but will necessarily reduce the quality of the course by narrowing the range of acceptable topics, readings, and approaches.
In practice the "create something which is ideologically independent from EA" wasn't really what we went for, it's more like "really hone in on this one area that lots of EAs care about". We could have phrased it better in the post.
Yeah +1 to Nandini's point, I think we should have been made this clearer in the post. I think people have a lot of misconceptions about EA (e.g. lots of people just think EA is about effective charitable giving), and we wanted to emphasise this particular part rather than trying to construct the whole tower of assumptions.
That being said, I do think that the abundance of writing from Ord/Bostrom is something that we could have done a better job of toning down, and different perspectives could have been included. If you have any specific recommendations for reading material you think would positively contribute in any week (or reading material already in the course that you think could be removed), we'd be really grateful!