Matt Boyd

Health, technology and catastrophic risk - New Zealand

Topic Contributions


Some clarifications on the Future Fund's approach to grantmaking

Thanks Nick, interesting thoughts, great to see this discussion, and appreciated. Is there a timeline for when the initial (21 March deadline) applications will all be decided? As you say, it takes as long as it takes, but has some implications for prioritising tasks (eg  deciding whether to commit to less impactful, less-scalable work being offered, and the opportunity costs of this). Is there a list of successful applications? 

Identifying the most pressing global problems for an Australian policy context

Rumtin, I think Jack is absolutely right, and our research, in the process of being written up will argue Australia is the most likely successful persisting hub of complexity in a range of nuclear war scenarios. We include a detailed case study of New Zealand (because of familiarity with the issues) but a detailed case study of Australia is begging to be done. There are key issues (mostly focused around trade, energy forms, societal cohesion, infectious disease resilience, awareness of the main risks - not 'radiation' like many public think, and for Australia not climate impacts or food either, which is where most nuclear impact research has focused) that could be improved ahead of time, with co-benefits for climate impact, health, resilience to other catastrophes etc. Australia is indeed uniquely positioned here (for a number of reasons that go beyond 'survival' and into 'resilience' and 'reboot' capacity, etc) and policy should include interconnections with NZ policy (sustaining regional trade, security alliance, etc, we've identified other potentially surviving/thriving regional partners too) Happy to collaborate on this. I can send you a draft of our paper in maybe 2 weeks. 

Release of Existential Risk Research database

Thanks Rumtin for this, it's a fantastic resource. One thing I note though is that some of the author listings are out of order (this is actually a problem in Terra's CSVs too where I think maybe some of the content in your database is imported from). For example, item 70 by 'Tang' (who is indeed an author) is actually first-authored by 'Wagman' as per the link. I had this problem using Terra, where I kept thinking I was finding papers I'd previously missed, only to discover they were the same paper but with authors in a different order. Maybe at some point a verification/QC process could be implemented (in both these databases, Terra too, to clean them up a little). Great work! 

Help us make civilizational refuges happen

Bunker on island is probably a robust set-up, at least two given volcanic nature of eg Iceland, New Zealand: Synergies/complementarities in island and bunker work should be explored. We're currently exploring the islands/nuclear winter strand (EA LTFF), and have put in for FTX too. 

Best Countries during Nuclear War

In a previous project we used the UN FAO food Pocketbook, although I think the way they compile data changed after 2012. We used the 'kcal production per capita' metric, from here: 

You can see what we did in the following two papers:

There are FAO CSVs for more recent years available to download here: 

That's one suggestion. 

Modelling the odds of recovery from civilizational collapse

Did you ever start/do this project, as per your linked G-doc?

Best Countries during Nuclear War

Hi, I have quite a lot to say about this, but I'm actually currently writing a research paper on exactly this issue, and will write a full forum post/link-post once it's completed (ETA June-ish). However, a couple of key observations:

  1. Cost of living is likely to be irrelevant in nuclear aftermath as global finance and economics is in tatters (the value of assets will jump around unpredictably, eg mansions less important than electric vehicles if global oil trade ceases), prices will change dramatically according to scarcity, eg food prices. 
  2. Energy independence and food security are probably the most important (>50% combined index value) because without energy food production is slashed to pre-industrial yields, and without food security the risk of unrest is very high. 
  3. Latitude and temperature are less important than the impact on specific countries, eg temperature change is important not mean temperature, tropical crops like rice will die in a single frost. Europe could suffer -20 C or -30 C temperature change according to climate models, which makes agriculture impossible. Yet Iceland with vast fish resources could potentially increase food production. 
  4. Rainfall could have a massive impact. The tropical monsoons could be very disrupted and are essential for agriculture in many areas. 
  5. The could very well be almost no trade taking place in a severe nuclear aftermath as nations struggle internally, or due to fuel shortages (many countries are dependent on oil for agriculture at scale). Without trade many countries are fragile in areas of energy and manufacturing. Many component parts of power generation facilities, electricity & food distribution and communications infrastructure are manufactured in only a few places and within a few months without imports/exports such infrastructure may fail (eg lubricants, spark plugs, transformers, fibre optics, etc). Expect most things to grind to a halt without trade. 

There is a lot more that could be said but you're right that the large South American food producers (Argentina etc) look relatively more promising, as well as the usual suspects NZ & Australia. Though each will have severe problems in an actual nuclear winter and organisation such as food/fuel rationing and distribution from rural to urban areas will be immensely problematic. Not to mention the need for public communication processes to ensure people know there is a plan and survival is possible, again to avoid societal mayhem. Social cohesion, and stability indicators are probably very important. 

One problem with composite indices is that very low scores on one dimension can be masked by reasonable scores on others. Countries should be ruled out if they fail on a critical dimension. 

Finally, the act of 'escaping to' the 'most promising' location is not generalisable, and so the ethics of it are questionable. As Kant notes, the test is 'what if everyone did the same as me, would that undermine the institution in question?' and in this case it seems like the answer is yes. 8 billion people fleeing to Argentina would defeat the purpose of acting ahead of war to maximise the chances of each particular country. Carrying capacity calculations are important here too. I haven't even considered HEMP yet, which could very much complicate matters. 

The following case study is particularly illuminating of the problems even 'good' locations like NZ might suffer:  contact me if you want the full text. 

Mitigating x-risk through modularity

'Partitioning' is another concept that might be useful. 

Islands as refuge (basically same idea as the city idea above), this paper specifically mentions pandemic as threat and island as solution (ie risk first approach) and also considers nuclear (and other) winter scenarios too (see the Supplementary material): 

I note Alexey's comment here too, broadly agree with his islands/refuge thinking. 

The literature on group selection and species selection in biology might prove useful. You seem to be on to it tangentially with the butterfly example. 

The Unweaving of a Beautiful Thing

I enjoyed this. Would seem to do well as an argument for preventing existential risk from Scheffler's 'the human project' point of view, ie the continuation of transgenerational undertakings that we each contribute a tiny piece to, as opposed to the maximizing total utility approach. Persistence of the whole seems to have emergent merit beyond the lives of the individuals. 

On the other hand it also made me think of the line Chigurh says in 'No Country for Old Men' > "If the rule that you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?" Rule = eg not eating meat, being compassionate etc. [note, I believe there IS use in the rules, but the line still haunts me] 

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