Introducing the Existential Risk Observatory

by Otto7 min read12th Aug 2021No comments

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Introduction

The Existential Risk Observatory is a new foundation, founded in May 2021 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In this post, we would like to introduce ourselves to the Effective Altruism community. We believe to have significant overlap with Effective Altruism, and we would like to cooperate wherever possible.

The aim of our organization is to reduce human extinction risks by informing the public debate. We will clarify what this means to us and why we've chosen this mission below.

Theory of change

Existential risk and AI safety are known to be neglected problems in general. However, within this space, we think communication to a general audience is particularly neglected. Most researchers understandably prioritize doing excellent research and as a result, communicating their results, or the general concepts of existential risk, is not necessarily a priority. At the same time, most people globally are unaware about the concept of existential risk, and about the most important sources of existential risk. We think this is a strongly suboptimal situation. If awareness of existential risk would be spread more widely, we believe there would be a large increase of:

  1. Talent available to reduce existential risk;
  2. Funding available to reduce existential risk;
  3. Institutes trying to reduce existential risk;
  4. Priority for reducing existential risk, even among actors who are in principle aware of this risk already;
  5. Diversity in the existential risk space, which should lead to more robust responses.

Communication of existential risk towards the public debate, we believe, should lead to significant progress in all these five areas. At the same time, we argue that communication towards the public debate is a neglected area. To our knowledge, there is no organization yet focusing specifically on existential risk communication towards the public debate. This should give us relevance in the space.

Additionally, there is currently very little research into how to best communicate these ideas. Therefore, we also aim to contribute to primary research into this topic, assessing the efficacy of different communication methods, and using this research to guide our outreach strategy.

Communicating responsibly

Some actors in the space might fear that irresponsible communication towards the public debate could lead to negative side effects, such as panic, depression, passiveness, politicization of the topic, crowding out other important topics, or others. However, communication to a general audience has already taken place, in the form of both books about existential risk and articles in general audience publications such as The Guardian, The Economist, The New Yorker, etc. We have researched the responses to those posts on social media and we have not observed the negative side effects mentioned above to any significant extent. Therefore, we think there is a strong case that increasing the number of such publications in a responsible manner, with content in line with existential risk research, should not lead to large negative side effects, while at the same time likely leading to increased talent, funding, relevant institutes, priority, and robustness.

Information hazards

We recognize the existence of information hazards when communicating about existential risk. In order to mitigate these hazards, we have observed the following precautions:

  1. We have had extensive meetings with researchers and others in leading existential risk organizations and tried to improve our organization with their feedback.
  2. We have carefully studied existing communication efforts by leading existential risk institutes in major publications, and we will be communicating similarly both in content and style.
  3. We will not communicate technical details about a certain existential risk, but rather point to a weakness in the system that should be fixed.

We therefore believe that we can communicate to a general audience, as these leading institutes have done before, in a responsible way. When doing this, we should minimize information hazard, while maximizing the potentially very large positive impact.

Strategy and targets

Our overarching goal is to increase existential risk awareness. We measure this by looking at the number of articles published in major news outlets in our working area mentioning the words ‘existential risk’ in a relevant context per unit of time. We start in The Netherlands for personal network reasons, where we aim to increase the number of these articles by at least 25% by the end of Q1 2022.

After having reached our target of demonstrably increasing Dutch existential risk awareness, we want to copy our concept to countries where the highest positive impact of our approach can be expected. We can do this either ourselves, let others copy our organization in their country, or a combination of the two. In this way, we aim to increase existential risk awareness globally, leading to significantly more talent, funding, institutes, priority, and robustness in humanity's global existential risk response.

We aim to reach our Q1 target by performing the following activities until then (some have been completed already):

  • Doing literature research about existential risk, in order to be sure that we're presenting correct and up-to-date information.
  • Creating an existential risk website aiming to introduce our institute and inform visitors about existential risk.
  • Organizing an online conference (7-8 Oct 2021), where academics can meet leading voices of the societal debate.
  • Working on responsible publications in leading traditional media together with stakeholders.
  • Having an increasing presence on social media.
  • Reaching out towards at least five other organizations outside of the existential risk space and introducing the existential risk concept to them, aiming for coordinated outreach.

Our emphasis in communication is, at least initially, on traditional media, rather than social media, mostly for two reasons:

  1. Traditional media allows more freedom in crafting a careful and responsible message. On social media, we might need to make the message more sensational than desired in order to attract attention.
  2. Publication in traditional media generates both a significant audience, and built-in credibility and trustworthiness of the message. Both these things are valuable to us.

Funding

At this moment, we are self-funded. For the medium term (at the point of upscaling), we are open to receiving funding from organizations and individuals, especially those which are looking for a demonstrable and scalable existential risk reduction method. Funds which can help us to scale up would be preferred.

Board

Otto Barten - founder, president, daily management

Otto is a physicist and sustainable energy engineer by training. He has also worked as a consultant and has founded and sold a strart-up company in smart charging electric vehicles.

Joep Sauren - treasurer

Joep is an entrepreneur who has experience running organizations. He can therefore advise us on organizational matters.

Marko van der Wal - secretary

Marko works at a leading publishing house in The Netherlands and is an expert on communication.

Team

Francesca Fleurbaay - conference organizer

Francesca has a background in psychology and is responsible for the organization of the Existential Risk Conference.

Craig Laurie Quarg - researcher

Craig is a macro social worker and social theorist interested in systems change and participatory governance. He believes that human beings are capable of flourishing together while addressing the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century.

Pierre Vandenberghe - content marketer

Pierre has a background in marketing and operations. He enjoys writing about rationality, effective altruism, and existential risks.

Ben Bucknall - researcher

Ben has a background in pure mathematics and is now interested in how mathematical and computational models can be used to further our understanding of existential risks. At the observatory he is responsible for ensuring that the information given is reliable and up-to-date.

Feedback

We highly appreciate feedback in general, as we believe our ideas and theory of change improves by being challenged. You can either write your feedback as a reply to this post, or contact us directly using the email address below.

Would you like to help?

We are currently hiring a full-time intern and a freelance press officer (for the latter position, we prefer someone with a strong network in relevant places of the Dutch societal debate). 

Please see our website for further details: https://www.existentialriskobservatory.org/about-us/#careers

After our proof-of-concept phase, we want to scale up. At that point, which should be in Q2 2022, we will likely need more talent to help us do that. Also, it might be that starting a similar institute in your country is the best way to scale up. If you think you are the right person to go ahead with such an endeavour, you should contact us and we're happy to give you advice.

How to get in touch

If you are interested in us, you can follow us on social media:

https://www.facebook.com/Existential-Risk-Observatory-104387338403042
https://twitter.com/xrobservatory
https://www.linkedin.com/company/71570894
https://www.instagram.com/existentialriskobservatory

Or take a look at our website:

https://www.existentialriskobservatory.org/

If you want to get in touch with us, please send an email to: 

info@existentialriskobservatory.org

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