Today we celebrate not destroying the world. We do so today because 38 years ago, Stanislav Petrov made a decision that averted tremendous calamity. It's possible that an all-out nuclear exchange between the US and USSR would not have actually destroyed the world, but there are few things with an equal chance of doing so.
As a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Army, Petrov manned the system built to detect whether the US government had fired nuclear weapons on Russia. On September 26th, 1983, the system reported five incoming missiles. Petrov’s job was to report this as an attack to his superiors, who would launch a retaliative nuclear response. But instead, contrary to the evidence the systems were giving him, he called it in as a false alarm, for he did not wish to instigate nuclear armageddon.
For more information, see: 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident
Petrov is not alone in having made decisions that averted destruction — presidents, generals, commanders of nuclear submarines, and similar also made brave and fortunate calls — but Petrov's story is salient, so today we celebrate him and all those who chose equally well.
As the world progresses, it's likely that many more people will face decisions like Petrov's. Let's hope they'll make good decisions! And if we expect to face decisions ourselves, let us resolve to decide wisely!
Mutually Assured Destruction (??)
The Petrov Day tradition is to celebrate Petrov's decisions and also to practice not destroying things, even when it's tempting.
In both 2019 and 2020, LessWrong placed a large red button on the frontpage and distributed "launch codes" to a few hundred "trustworthy" people. A launch would bring down the frontpage for the duration of Petrov Day, denying hundreds to thousands of people access to LessWrong. In 2019, all was fine. In 2020... let's just say some bad decisions were made.
And yet, having a button on your own page that brings down your own site doesn't make much sense! Why would you have nukes pointed at yourself? It's also not very analogous to the cold war nuclear scenario between major world powers.
For those reasons, in 2021, LessWrong is teaming up with the Forum to play a game of mutual destruction. Two buttons, two sets of codes, and two sets of hopefully trustworthy users.
(The button will appear on the homepage on Sunday morning, 8 AM PST.)
If LessWrong chose any launch code recipients they couldn't trust, the EA Forum will go down, and vice versa. One of the sites going down means that people are blocked from accessing important resources: the destruction of significant real value. What's more, it will damage trust between the two sites ("I guess your most trusted users couldn't be trusted to not take down our site") and also for each site itself ("I guess the admins couldn't find a hundred people who could be trusted").
For exact rules of the game, see the final section below.
Last year, it emerged that there was ambiguity about how serious the Petrov Day exercise was. I'll be clear as I can via text: there is real value on the line here, and this is a real trust-building exercise that was not undertaken lightly by either LessWrong or the Forum. Both sites have chosen recipients who we hope will understand this.
How Do I Celebrate?
If you were one of the two hundred people to receive launch codes for LessWrong or the Forum, celebrate by doing nothing!
Other ways of celebrating:
- You can discuss Petrov Day and threats to humanity with your friends.
- You can hold a quiet, dignified ceremony with candles and the beautiful booklets created by Jim Babcock.
- And you can also play on hard mode: "During said ceremony, unveil a large red button. If anybody presses the button, the ceremony is over. Go home. Do not speak."
- This has been a common practice at Petrov Day celebrations in Oxford,
Boston, Berkeley, New York, and in other rationalist communities. It is often done with pairs of celebrations, each with a button that can end the other.
- This has been a common practice at Petrov Day celebrations in Oxford,
Rules of the Exercise
The following email was sent last night to 100 users from the EA Forum. 100 LessWrong users received a similar message.
I invite you to participate in an exercise to determine whether the EA Forum can find 100 users it can trust with a genuinely high-stakes decision.
This year, we’re joining LessWrong in celebrating Petrov Day — a holiday where we celebrate the non-destruction of the world, and practice not destroying it ourselves.
To prove the goodwill and trust between the two sites, each site is sending “nuclear launch codes” to 100 users we think we can trust. I chose you personally to receive this message.
(For more on why we’ve done this, see this post.)
If you enter your launch codes into the launch console on the Forum’s homepage, they will cause LessWrong’s homepage to go down for the duration of Petrov Day. For the rest of the day, thousands of people will have a hard time using the site; some posts and comments will likely go unwritten. And I’ll have failed in my mission to find 100 people I could trust not to take down our friendly compatriots.
Your code is personalized; if someone enters it, we’ll know whose code took down the site.
This is your code: [CODE]
LessWrong and the Forum both have second-strike capability that will last for one hour after one of the sites is taken down. If the Forum’s homepage disappears, please consider very carefully whether or not you think it is correct to retaliate.
I hope you’ll help us all keep LessWrong safe, and that they’ll do the same for us.
Aaron Gertler and the EA Forum team
To all, I wish you a safe and stable Petrov Day.
Here is the mirror of this post on LessWrong. You may wish to view it for the discussion there.
First of all I'd like to thank the Forum team for their hard work producing this nuclear deterrent. We have been extremely lucky that LessWrong did not heed Bertrand Russell's advice during their period of nuclear monopoly. However, I am concerned that we have not yet tested these weapons, and hence we cannot be entirely sure they will function as intended. Perhaps a test strike against a lightly populated military target like the https://www.nytimes.com/ would make an effective demonstration?
I had one of the EA Forum's launch codes, but I decided to permanently delete it as an arms-reduction measure. I no longer have access to my launch code, though I admit that I cannot convincingly demonstrate this.
Thanks for this interesting exercise. Three things I want to say:
#1: For people unaware, pressing the red button means you cannot un-press it, though nothing bad will happen unless you enter a launch code.
After I read this page carefully, I thought it was going to be fine and harmless/reversible for me to press the red button, since I had not received a launch code. I have no intention of bringing the LessWrong site down, and don't plan on entering any launch code, whether random or someone else's, into the page. I also thought pressing the button would be anonymous, but entering launch codes would not be.
I was just curious at what the user interface/experience would be if I press the button, but not enter anything into it. Anyway, apparently pressing the button means you cannot "un-press" the button. So if you're similarly as curious as me, here's what it looks like after pressing the button:
It was only after I read this LessWrong postmortem about Petrov Day 2020 that pressing the red button, even without entering anything into it, will likely be known as done by you by the Forum/LW team, but probably not announced publicly. So I'm posting this ahead saying me pr... (read more)
I'd fairly strongly disagree with that take. I think it's an extremely reasonable assumption that a somewhat cartoony red button someone put at the top of a website deliberately does not do harm to press. Someone deliberately chose to put it there, and most features on websites are optimised for user interaction. This only looks unreasonable within the strong frame of having cultural context about Petrov Day
I'm coming to the conclusion that a private Petrov day game is good but a public one without community buy-in leads to a lot of tense disagreements as to what the game means. In some ways that's a nice analogy for the human condition, in other ways it feels like afterwards we should have some kind of group therapy.
I think I'm softly in favour but I'm glad this only happens once a year. Also I'm 1% worried this is going to end in reputational damage to the community.
I've included a series of forecasting questions, in case people excited about forecasting on global catastrophic risks want a fast-feedback way to test their data gathering or calibration.
(Note that there is a relation between these questions - the sum of the last three probabilities is twice the first)
I just want to say, I'm having a really bad day, and this made me feel a little better about myself.
So I won't be launching the missiles, but er... I was also offered codes on LessWrong, so launching still kinda seems like blowing up my own side.
So it looks like we survived? (Yay)
I think it would be good for CEA to provide a clear explanation, that it (not LW) stands behind as an organization, of exactly what real value it views as being on the line here, and why it thinks it was worthwhile to risk that value.
I have a code. How much should I charge in counterfactual donations to effective charities to push it? How much do we think it's worth to "win" this year's Petrov day game?
I don't think this is a terrible question. Personally, somewhere like $2k to $20k; $2k if one only considers the object level value (say $1M/year ÷ 365 days) , $20k if one thinks that the value is higher than $1M/year or if one really values the intangibles. And because of the unilateralist curse &c, one should probably tend towards the higher amounts anyways.
Ouch. It was a serious question, if someone were to pay 20k to malaria coalition, that's 4 lives on expectation. Seems reasonable for the loss to our community.
Could someone explain why asking how much we should charge to press the button is taboo?
Hmm, I guess I find it strange. To me, asking this question is part of taking this ritual seriously. IE how valuable is this ritual to maintain?
I thought this comment was apt: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/KQnYogkFTKc9wpWjY/postmortem-to-petrov-day-2020?commentId=Ye23vB8amHhxHLTdz
I can't really tell if this is supposed to be a game or a sacred ritual.
Some of the LessWrong and Forum moderators are away at a conference, so we won't be publishing a retrospective right away, but we do expect to publish one eventually. Stay tuned!
An obvious question which I'm keen to hear people's thoughts on - does MAD work here? Specifically, does it make sense for the EA forum users with launch codes to commit to a retaliatory attack? The obvious case for it is deterrence. The obvious counterarguments are that the Forum could go down for a reason other than a strike from LessWrong, and that once the Forum is down, it doesn't help us to take down LW (though this type of situation might be regular enough that future credibility makes it worth it)
Though of course it would be really bad for us to have to take down LW, and we really don't want to. And I imagine most of us trust the 100 LW users with codes not to use them :)
The question is whether precommitment would actually change behavior. In this case, anyone shutting down either site is effectively playing nihilist, and doesn't care, so it shouldn't.
In fact, if it does anything, it would be destabilizing - if "they" commit to pushing the button if "we" do, they are saying they aren't committed to minimizing damage overall, which should make us question whether we're actually on the same side. (And this is a large part of why MAD only works if you are both selfish, and scared of losing.)
Furthermore, if there was a user who wanted to take down LW/EA for fun, a precommitment to MAD would only help that user take down an additional site.
I know we're trying to remember when the US and USSR had their weapons pointed at each other but it feels more like the North and South islands of New Zealand are trying to decide whether to nuke each other!
Edit: Not even something so violent - just temporarily inconvenience each other
I briefly saw a "Missile Incoming" message with a 60:00 timer (that wasn't updating) on the buttons on the front pages of both LW and the EA Forum, at around 12pm EST, on mobile. Both messages were gone when I refreshed. Was this a bug or were they testing the functionality, testing us or preparing to test us?
Correction: The annual Petrov Day celebration in Boston has never used the button.
On the one hand, in order for MAD to work, decision-makers on both sides must be able to give credible threats for a retaliatory strike scenario. This is also true in this experiment’s case: if we assume that this will be iterated on future Petrov Days, then we must show that any tit-for-tat precommitments made are followed through.
But at the same time, if LessWrong takes down the EA Forum, it just seems like wanton destruction to similarly take it down, too. I know that, as a holder of the codes, I should ensure that I’m making a fully credible threat by ... (read more)
oh crap! I accidentally pressed the button :O I'm super sorry
Attention EA Forum - I am a chosen user of LessWrong and I have the codes needed to destroy the EA Forum. I hereby make a no first use pledge and I will not enter my codes for any reason, even if asked to do so. I also hereby pledge to second strike - if LessWrong is taken down, I will retaliate.
Ahh, Nixon's madman strategy.
I downvoted this. I'm not sure if that was an appropriate way to express my views about your comment, but I think you should lift your pledge to second strike, and I think it's bad that you pledged to do so in the first place.
I think one important disanalogy between real nuclear strategy and this game is that there's kind of no reason to press the button, which means that for someone pressing the button, we don't really understand their motives, which makes it less clear that this kind of comment addresses their motives.
Consider that last time LessWrong was persuaded to destroy itself, it was approximately by accident. Especially considering the context of the event we're commemorating was essentially another accident, I think the most likely story for why one of the sites gets destroyed is not intentional, and thus not affected by precommitments to retaliate.
I can't parse the concept of 'precommitment'. I don't intend to launch a first strike, but maybe something will happen in the next few hours to change my intention, and I don't have any way to restructure my brain to reduce that possibility to 0. The reverse applies for second striking.