There’s been some interest over the last year or so in movies and TV shows that could be funded in the general areas of global catastrophic risk or longtermism. In December 2021, Don’t Look Up became one of the best performing movies ever on Netflix, and has inspired lots of discussion of climate change, raising its salience. I put together a brainstorm of movies and TV shows that I'd like to see funded and made below, and I’d love to hear other people’s ideas – get in the comments.

 

Disaster movies remakes/reboots

Dr Strangelove is absolutely incredible, and maybe unremakable. But that’s never stopped Hollywood before! Its 60 years old, remake it with Steve Carell as the lead.

Threads and The Day After are 40 years old, lets do new versions of them – and add what we now know about nuclear winter. These films were apparently very influential on Reagan.

Contagion is really good, Outbreak is bad. Let’s have more pandemic movies, focused on engineered pandemics – really nailing the case against gain-of-function research.

What about a version of Terminator focused only on Skynet? A better version of Transcendence, or a bigger scale version of Ex Machina.

Armageddon and Deep Impact are not particularly accurate, but are very engaging. They’re 30 years old. Why not new versions of these, but focused on the dual-use dangers of asteroid mining? Or on supervolcanoes?

I loved the early episodes of Survivors (1975) set in an empty wasteland Britain after a pandemic has killed 99% of the population. Later episodes are a bit post-apocalyptic The Archers (lots of farming problems) but there are some great episodes about rebuilding civilisation. They remade it in 2008 and it’s meh. Remake a better version set in the US.

 

Turn these books into movies/TV shows

Richard Rhodes – The Making of The Atomic Bomb. Incredibly cinematic book, honestly surprised it hasn’t been adapted yet. I’d want this to be a several seasons-long series. First season is the early dreams of 20th century physics, following Rutherford, Bohr, Fermi, etc. Second season follow Szilárd and others as they escape the Nazis and keep the nuclear chain reaction secret, end with the Einstein-Szilárd letter to Roosevelt. Third season follows the Manhattan Project, ends with Hiroshima and Nagasaki (could be similar to Manh(a)ttan).

Daniel Ellsberg – The Doomsday Machine. There’s been loads of movies made about him leaking the Pentagon Papers, but none on his much more interesting work on nuclear strategy. You could have the weird intense atmosphere of 1950s RAND, him hopping around the Pacific at various bases realising theres no limits on individual pilots starting WW3, his realisation that the missile gap was a mistake and he's just been increasing nuclear risk for five years, preparing to leak on nuclear weapons but the hidden documents buried in the ground are washed away by a hurricane (!), getting arrested with his son on the train tracks to a nuclear production facility, etc.

Cold Dawn (Newhouse) – how the first bilateral restrictions on nuclear weapons (SALT I) were passed. Loads of fun 1970s suits and hairstyles, weird stuff during the negotiations like boating on Lake Geneva, Kissinger as the central character (fascinating antihero). With a possible sequel adapting Endgame (Talbott) in which Rumsfeld betrays Kissinger and kills SALT II. If you want to make a full series out of it, adapt Adler’s story of the arms control community from the 40s to the 70s.

The Precipice – Toby Ord going through the major existential risks, have one scene of him literally in a McDonalds in Geneva saying “The BWC’s budget is smaller than this little McCafe”.

What We Owe The Future – Will MacAskill going through the book, shot on location at the many interesting places he talks about in the book, like a Brian Cox show (e.g. Wonders of Life, Wonders of the Solar System, etc).

 

Close Calls / Too Close For Comfort

Drama series (or documentary but I would prefer drama) in which each episode follows a different close call and a hero who avoided nuclear war. See e.g. Wikipedia, Chatham House, GCRI.

  • Arkhipov, 1962 – bottle episode, set entirely in the submarine with broken air conditioning that’s heating up and being depth-charged by US ships in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis – very intense episode.
  • Yom Kippur, 1973 – Israel is surprise-attacked, Meir arms her jets, Brezhnev threatens Israel, Nixon is sad and drunk about Watergate, and Kissinger down in the Situation Room has to frantically avoid nuclear war.
  • NORAD – In 1960, they were showing a bunch of businessmen around, then the computer was confused by moonrise over Norway. In 1967, they thought a solar flare was the Soviets jamming their radar. In 1979, they accidentally loaded a training scenario onto the computer.
  • Carolinas – In 1958, the USAF dropped a bomb accidentally on Mars Bluff, South Carolina. In 1961, they dropped one on Goldsboro, North Carolina.
  • Petrov, 1983 – character study following Petrov on his average day, maybe with flashbacks over his life, key scene is him avoiding doomsday, then maybe a few flashforwards of him being scapegoated. There’s been a documentary made The Man Who Saved the World but not a drama as far as I know.

 

Solutions 

Documentary multiepisode TV series, following a different expert each episode, kind of fly-on-the wall, framed around positive problem-solving.

  • DIY Biolabs - going to visit a bunch, seeing what nasty stuff they could cook up, what's their safety like?
  • Future Foods - going to a bunch of factories, seeing weird foods that we could eat e.g. during nuclear winter.
  • Negotiating the Future - follow climate activists to a COP, arms control campaigners to the UN Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems negotiations or experts to the new Sendai Framework negotiations (which is likely to feature existential risk).
  • The Future Generations Bill - see Lord John Bird, co-founder of the Big Issue and sponsor of the UK Future Generations Bill working with homeless people, and also talking in the Lords.
  • Financing Doomsday - some finance expert going to some banks or shareholder meetings, could be around climate change, nuclear weapons (Don’t Bank on the Bomb) or Lethal Autonomous Weapons (Keeping CTRL).
  • Scenarios - film 2/3 different ones, like Clade X, World War Three: Inside the War Room or Intelligence Rising.
  • Biorisk Fieldwork - visiting bat caves, jungles, investigating defrosting bodies up in the Arctic etc.
  • Doomsday Clock - follow the run-up to the announcement.
  • 'Time to Build' - ramping up vaccine production, ramping up renewables manufacturing: how have these awesome heroes ramped up these good things so quickly?

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Thanks for this post, this is very interesting. Also relevant to this topic is Matt Yglesias' post today, The case for Terminator analogies, in which he advocates for mass-media portrayals of AGI like the terminator movies.

One idea that occurs to me to for a megaproject (although it may not be as scalable as some other projects) is something similar to GLAAD, but for EA/existential risk ideas. 

GLAAD advocates for LGBT representation in the entertainment industry, as well as other pro-LBGT acceptance messaging and spent roughly $9 million in 2020. Although further in-depth research is required to determine GLAAD's counterfactual impact, my sense is that they've been at least somewhat impactful. Gallup's polling of US support for gay marriage has increased from 27% in 1996 to 70% in 2021, and the first GLAAD media awards for LGBT representation were held in 1990.  Indeed, this article argues that GLAAD has been so effective, it has outlived its usefulness. Separately, the TV show Will & Grace (started in 1998) is sometimes credited with normalizing gay relationships, and Biden said in 2012: "I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public more than almost anything anybody has done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

GLAAD could be a model for an EA project that lobbies the entertainment industry to get movies and TV shows like the ones you mention above produced. It could also advise the industry on how to portray threats from pandemics and super-volcanoes (or similar) accurately. Another project in this area  that could be used as a  blueprint is AAAS'  Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology

GLAAD is a really useful case study, thanks for highlighting it. Participant Media was another model I had in mind - they produced Contagion, Spotlight, Green Book, An Inconvenient Truth, Citizenfour, Food Inc, and The Post amongst others.

Reposting & paraphrasing some of my comments on an earlier thread about movies & documentaries:

Where are the realistic (contagion-like) disaster films?
Personally, I would love to see a well-made disaster movie about the real, modern conception of AI risk.  I am also surprised and disappointed by the fact that (even after covid!!) there are not more good movies about pandemics in the works.  (Especially when there are so many zombie and post-apocalyptic movies, which are like the less-realistic cousin of the would-be pandemic genre.)

I am also surprised and disappointed by the fact that there are not really any disaster movies about "modern warfare" or "world war 3" -- maybe a Tom-Clancy-style movie about how a miscommunication between the USA and China leads them to the brink of war, or just a movie realistically portraying what a future large-scale war might look like, with attacks on satellites and drone-swarms and cyberattacks on infrastructure and the like.  I think a realistic AI movie could be very helpful, but the effect on the world might be negative for some of these ideas.  A realistic movie about biorisks might be subject to infohazard concerns, while a realistic movie about modern warfare might inflame international tensions if not done very carefully.

Conversely, I would also love to see a movie or TV series depicting a realistic attempt at an optimistic, utopian near-future -- perhaps introducing the reader to promising new technologies and new types of social/governance institutions that could help solve major current problems.

Make a rationalist/EA modern-day version of "Cosmos":
If I was an EA grantmaker, I'd want to start small by maybe hiring an educational-youtube-video personality (like John Green's "Crash Course") to make an Effective Altruism series.  If that seemed to show good results, then I would escalate to funding a decent Netflix-style documentary movie, which I imagine could be had for something like $2-5 million -- "An Inconvenient Truth" had a budget of around $1.5 million.  Then, if everything was still going peachy, we could set our sights higher and consider a big Cosmos-style TV series with a big marketing push to really try and get the word out.  In a Cosmos-inspired TV show, each episode could tackle a different philosophical idea or global problem, perhaps roughly following the 80,000 Hours Podcast series "Effective Altruism: An Introduction" and "Effective Altruism: Ten Global Problems", sprinkling in some key highlights of the LessWrong sequences.  Interviews with experts would alternate with experimental demonstrations, historical anecdotes,  and CGI visualizations meant to make the abstract ideas of effective altruism vivid and memorable, just like Cosmos did so well.

If I was an EA grantmaker, I'd want to start small by maybe hiring an educational-youtube-video personality (like John Green's "Crash Course") to make an Effective Altruism series. 

I think this is in the works! Kurtzegat got a $2.8m grant from Open Phil

See also A Happier World and Rational Animations.

Movies about the Robinson books: 1) Ministry for the Future and 2) Mars trilogy

Yes of course! KSR hinted there may be some interest in Ministry - Mars seems stuck in development hell unfortunately.

I am sorry. 

What is KSR?

Apologies, Kim Stanley Robinson

I would recommend Testament  as a reference for people making X-risk movies.  It's about people dying out from radiation after a nuclear war, from the perspective of a mom with kids.  I would describe it as emotionally serious, and also it presents a woman's and "ordinary person's" perspective.  I guess it could be remade if someone wanted to, or it could just be a good influence on other movies.

Hell yeah, I can't wait to watch this and get really depressed. Have you read or watched When The Wind Blows? Seems a similar tone.

I hadn't heard of When the Wind Blows before.  From the trailer, I would say Testament may be darker, although a lot of that has to do with me not responding to animation (or When the Wind Blows' animation) as strongly as to live-action.  (And then from the Wikipedia summary, it sounds pretty similar.)

Would like to see a cost breakdown of how much a show costs, what the chance of success is. I have no idea if this is a great funding opportunity or a terrible one.

Films get sponsored to put cars and watches in, so why not ideas? Maybe partner with some studios who have done great tv shows before and make these.

 

Needs some AGI x-risk stuff. I liked neXt

I think a good TV series could be where each episode ends in  AI Alignment failing and the world ending, but there is a gradual shift toward getting closer to solving things (or at least things failing in less obvious ways). Maybe there could be a plot device whereby a superintelligent AI is running multiple simulations, and each episode is a simulation run. Perhaps each one could start further back in history, with the Alignment problem becoming well known and acted upon earlier and earlier. Or there is somehow one character that is common to all simulation runs (episodes) and they accumulate knowledge about what doesn't work. But generally, the world ending every episode is there to put emphasis on how difficult the problem is. Perhaps there could also be some Dying with Dignity involved. Maybe in the 7th season or something they will finally get it right (coinciding with similar developments happening in the real world? [One can hope.]) Or there could be a series with each episode depicting a crucial consideration for why alignment might happen by default, or become moot.

I will check out neXt, thanks. I like the idea of reboots, very Edge Of Tomorrow.