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Nuclear attack risk? Implications for personal decision-making

I am starting to worry that the possibility of Russia using conventional or perhaps more likely tactical nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict is real.   My concern is one largely based in this article by Francesca Giovannini : A hurting stalemate? The risks of nuclear weapon use in the Ukraine crisis

For Mr. Putin, any kind of losing the war with Ukraine seems like a non-option, given his domestic situation and the possibility that his regime could come to an end. 

The article outlines three assumptions that those who don't think Russia will use nuclear weapons make: "that Russia has a strong interest in not destroying Ukraine, because Putin wants to occupy it; that even though Putin is a thug, he is not a crazy enough thug to break a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons in war, a taboo that has held for 75 years; and that there are plenty of other options that the Russians can exercise in subduing Ukraine. "

However, I think all three of these assumptions are suspect. 

Regarding the first assumption, we have already seen Russia step up its attacks on civilian infrastructure in the last two days. For Putin, a victory of some kind (like regime change) is paramount, and the longer the invasion takes, with weapons and aid flowing to Ukrainian fighters, the harder that possibility becomes. 

Regarding the second assumption taboo, there are reasons to suspect Putin is willing to break the nuclear taboo. He has already threatened the possibility of not renewing treaties with the US to limit the number of nuclear weapons, he has sidelined many of his advisors, and he is an authoritarian clinging on to power and trying the restore Russia's status as a superpower. He may see all options as being on the table. 

Finally, with regard to the third assumption, it's true that Russia's conventional forces are vastly stronger than Ukraine's, but we have seen the fierce resistance of Ukrainian fighters, and a prolonged occupation would require many more troops. The use of a tactical nuclear weapon would test Ukraine's and NATO's resolve and signal his willingness to do whatever it takes to win the war.

Using Export Controls to Reduce Biorisk

Very interesting post, thanks for taking the time to write it up.  It sounds like the BIS is moving in the right direction on regulating some sensitive biotech stuff.  While it seems like there are some obvious things to add to this list (e.g. dangerous pathogens), it also seems like a lot of the dual-use stuff would be non-obvious to regulate this way given that many of the technologies that could be used to engineer a pathogen also have legitimate scientific and industrial applications. 

I've included some of my shallow notes on this topic from investigating the Chinese bioeconomy.  

Challenges with dual-use 

For example, one area that has received particular scrutiny regarding import-export controls is w.r.t. surveillance technology used in China. In a 2018 letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross inquiring about the sale of surveillance Technology to Chinese police, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) wrote: 

Recently, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have identified Thermo-Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts based company, as selling DNA sequencers with advanced microprocessors under the Applied Biosystems (ABI) Genetic Analyzer brand to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and its Public Security bureaus across China. 

The letter goes on to request answers to the following questions:

1) Given that most crime control and detection and surveillance equipment, software and technology are controlled under the Export Administration Regulations, what factors are being used to determine the suitability of an export to an agent of state security?  How did Thermo-Fisher surmount a presumption of denial to sell their product to the Chinese government?

2) What other product licenses have been sought under Export Administration Regulations sections 742.7, 742.13, 744.17(c), or other sections, to sell to agencies of China’s state security? 

3) In light of recent reports, how are you—in coordination with the Department of State—reviewing the export of items being used by Chinese military and police end-users for surveillance, detection, and censorship, to determine whether more scrutiny is needed over the proliferation of “dual-use” information, software, and communication technologies? Are new legislation or new authorities needed to revisit/revise export control regulations so they are consistent with the rapid evolution of technology?  Is software or technology which could be used for the purpose of domestic repression, subject to export controls with respect to Chinese end-users of concern? 

4) In addition to possible export controls, is there any discussion currently underway to, at the very least, restrict the end-users of such technologies, in this case Xinjiang Public Security and related entities? 

In a response letter, Secretary Wilbur stated that the rules did not apply to Thermo Fischer because

The items [gene sequencers] are low-technology products that are available from worldwide sources, including indigenous Chinese sources, and have numerous legitimate end-uses,”

 including in education, medical research, and forensics, according to Mr. Ross’s letter. 

This, I suspect, is the biggest challenge with an import-export. Where do you set the bar for technologies or products to join the export control list when it has applications in science or industry. Another externality here is that US biotech firms that sell products and services in China are likely to be hurt by too far-reaching an export control list (For more info on these considerations I recommend the report Two Worlds, Two Bioeconomies: The Impacts of Decoupling US–China Trade and Technology Transfer). 

Foreign investment

With regards to foreign investment,  the U.S. has been pretty active in response to Chinese investment in biotech.  The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS)  which sits under the Department of Treasury is the body in charge of reviewing transactions involving foreign investment in the United States that could involve national security concerns. The Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 (FIRMA) expanded CFIUS's purview to include subjecting even non-controlling foreign investments in companies with certain critical technologies or involved in sensitive data collection of US citizens.  Under Firma, Chinese investment in U.S. biotech dropped sharply

The article presents two biotech case studies where CFIUS has intervened:

After receiving $5 million in funding from the Department of Defense, San Francisco start-up Twist Bioscience, makers of synthetic DNA, decided to expand manufacturing through a Chinese subsidiary. This prompted an amendment to Congress’s annual defense policy bill to ensure grant recipients of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are prohibited from partnering with entities subject to foreign company or government control. The main concern cited was the threat of the Chinese government stealing intellectual property and trade secrets from American companies (O’Keefe, 2019).

In 2017, PatientsLikeMe, Cambridge-based online service that helps patients find people with similar health conditions, sold a majority stake to China’s iCarbonX. The goal was to combine the Chinese firm’s artificial intelligence technology with PatientsLikeMe’s customers and data sets. Currently, around 700,000 people use the website, which has generated tens of millions of data points about disease. CFIUS is now forcing a divestiture because the company collects potentially sensitive data on users who set up profiles which poses a danger to US national security. With this decision, PatientsLikeMe not only loses its principal financier, but also a critical technology partner (Farr, 2019).

Under its authority, CFIUS could and probably does try to prevent foreign actors from gaining bioweapon-enabling by means of technology transfer through foreign investment, but the same challenges around dual-use research are present. 

Overall thoughts

  • The U.S. government's focus on regulating foreign investment and doing export control stuff seems more broadly motivated by concerns about economic competitiveness, IP theft, and national security priorities (some more reasonable than others) that currently don't cleanly reflect GCBR reduction priorities. 
  • Any kind of unilateral approach on import-export regulations or even foreign investment is challenging since countries can find other vendors or companies of advanced biotech in Europe and China. That being said, the U.S. has the largest and most advanced bioeconomy so limiting the export of sensitive tech and products could certainly still limit some critical supplies, although I'm unsure of what. 
  • One approach might be to limit more dual-use biotech under export controls at a baseline, but increase the capacity at BIS to oversee exceptions to the export control list. This way sales can be verified against military or other suspicious end users.  
The most successful EA podcast of all time: Sam Harris and Will MacAskill (2020)

Nice post. I would also add that Sam's podcast with Toby Ord discussed many EA-related concepts including the GWWC pledge. I signed up directly as a result of that podcast and I would expect that there may have been a similar spike as seen after the Will MacAskill episodes. 

Is it possible to submit to the 80,000 Hours Jobs Board?

Related: I have also recommended it be possible to submit specific research questions to Effective Thesis, but never heard back. Submitting EA-relevant positions to 80,000 hours seems like another great tool. +1

What Makes Outreach to Progressives Hard

Yes there is a kind of "Narcissism of small differences" in which societal progress is measured in the context of a wealthy western countries instead of the broader world. The social justice initiatives in the U.S. do not benefit or extend to people of color in poorer countries who often suffer under even more pronounced economic or state injustices (e.g. deadly malaria mosquitoes, malnutrition, lack of access to healthcare, jobs, education, and internet, government oppression, etc).  I believe this is in part because people in the U.S. don't know how how much worse quality of life can be in poorer or more  authoritarian countries. 

For Better Commenting, Avoid PONDS

I didn't read the entire article, but overall I thought it was alright. I thought your definition of shallow should have been more flushed out and to me that just took away from everything else.  I think all comments add value.

Did I get them all? :D 

The intersection of foreign aid and EA: a U.S. case study

Yea that is very interesting. Foreign aid is definitely not a super important issue for voters in the U.S. but it is surprisingly bipartisan. I think even those with more hawkish or isolationist messages recognize for the importance of foreign aid for national security. 

Increasing public awareness on foreign aid spending could definitely help incentivize more reform. I applaud the efforts by the ONE campaign. 

The intersection of foreign aid and EA: a U.S. case study

Hi Tony. I just released a second post Is Foreign Aid Effective? where I share a review of aid effectiveness literature. Overall I think that yes aid is an effective mechanism to do good in the world. Important functions like food security and humanitarian relief are almost entirely dependent on foreign aid and are definitely "effective." 

Of course the effectiveness of aid is still far from ideal. There lot of examples in which foreign aid projects had no impact or even a negative impact on the recipient countries. Much like we have discovered with charities, effectiveness often varies at orders of magnitude. I imagine foreign aid programs are similar. Foreign aid also hasn't produced much measurable economic growth in poor countries for reasons which I highlight in my second post. 

I think there is also reasons for optimism regarding trends in foreign aid. There seems to be a significant shift among countries to implement more randomized control trials and generally be more transparent.The transformation of USAID is a good example a positive step towards more effective foreign aid.