Existential Risk

Guardians of the Apocalypse

By on December 15, 2011

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Rick Schwall retired seven years ago after a successful career in Silicon Valley. He says he’s a millionaire but declines to reveal where he worked or how he made his money. “I consider all of that stuff to be absolutely pointless,” he says. “What is important is that in 2006 I stumbled upon existential risk.”

For the uninitiated, existential risk is a broad term covering catastrophic events that could wipe out the human species. Some existential risk devotees agonize over nuclear wars, climate change, and virus outbreaks. Others, such as Schwall, put more energy into worrying about the potential downside of information technology. They fret about a super-powerful artificial intelligence run amok and hordes of killer nanobots. “There are a number of people who have knowledge in this field that estimate humanity’s chance at making it through this century at about 50 percent,” Schwall says. “Even if that number is way off and it’s one in a billion, that’s too high for me.”

In August, Schwall started an organization called Saving Humanity from Homo Sapiens. The nonprofit, which boasts an eye-catching logo of a man holding a gun to his throat, looks to fund researchers who have plans for taming artificial intelligence and developing safeguards that protect man from machines. So far, Schwall has doled out a few thousand dollars to a handful of researchers, but it’s early days for SHFHS. Schwall, after all, is thinking big and answering the grandest of callings. “There are so many people who cannot wrap their minds around all of humanity,” he says. “I don’t know why I rose above that. I have no clue.”

Religious groups have long dominated talk of the apocalypse. Most often the world ends at the hands of a god who transfers people to a better place. These days, though, you’ll find plenty of atheistic types in Silicon Valley meditating on man’s potential for self-inflicted destruction, and it doesn’t often lead much of anywhere. These people design the most sophisticated technology on the planet but bemoan its dark potential. They’re adherents of the Singularity, a sort of nerd rapture that will occur when machines become smarter than people and begin advancing technological change on their own, eventually outpacing and—in a worst-case scenario—enslaving people before getting bored and grinding us up into fleshy pulp. This, as it happens, resembles the prospect that had the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, all worked up.

One of the gripes emanating from the existential risk adherents is that people have not taken these warnings seriously enough. Sure, governments, research organizations, and philanthropists fund work to curb global warming, contain nuclear weapons arsenals, and prevent viral outbreaks. But where’s the money for a much needed artificial intelligence force field or an asteroid blocker? With some people predicting the Singularity’s arrival as early as the next decade, the race is on for man to defend himself from his own creations.

To properly address such threats before it’s too late, a booming subculture of tech-minded thinkers, entrepreneurs, and nongovernmental organizations has stepped into the existential risk realm. Many of the groups, like SHFHS, focus on worries about artificial intelligence (AI). Others have secured some serious cash to fund a broader set of projects to protect us from annihilation in whatever form it might take.

Consider, for example, the Lifeboat Foundation. It’s an organization run out of the Minden (Nev.) home of Eric Klien, a technologist who has dabbled in the fields of cryonics and online dating. This group frets about science fiction scenarios such as computers gone bad, alien attacks, and the arrival of nasty man-made synthetic creatures. To date, the Lifeboat Foundation has raised more than $500,000 from corporations such as Google (GOOG), Oracle (ORCL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Fannie Mae (FNMA) and from hundreds of individuals. Asked to comment, a spokesman for Fannie Mae was surprised to learn of the donations, which were part of an employer match program.

The Lifeboat Foundation’s flashiest project is the A-Prize, a contest to create an artificial life form “with an emphasis on the safety of the researchers, public, and environment.” Thus far, donors have pledged $29,000 to the winner. The real down-and-dirty work, however, revolves around shields, with projects under way to build Asteroid, Brain, Alien, Internet, Black Hole, and Antimatter shields. Other work includes the creation of space habitats and personality preservers.

It’s unclear how far along any of these projects is. Most of the Lifeboat Foundation’s money seems to go toward supporting conferences and publishing papers. But laying down the rigorous theoretical groundwork for such projects ensures their viability when the existential hammer falls. Lifeboat remains one of the only places where people think about the panoply of nontraditional risks to mankind.

Klien would like to see some bigger donors step up and allow the Lifeboat Foundation to tackle truly massive endeavors. Part of the problem is that people have not gotten a real taste for a near-death experience that awakens their existential risk spirit. “There will be a 9/11 with dirty bombs or nuclear bombs,” he says. “It will make it a lot easier for us at that point.”

The major success story of the existential risk movement is the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which focuses on making sure we end up with “friendly” AI. Every year it holds an event called the Singularity Summit where some speakers dazzle the crowd with cutting-edge technology, while others reinforce the existential risk cause.

The Singularity Institute prides itself on examining existential risk with a rational eye. One of its thought leaders and board members is Eliezer Yudkowsky, a prolific blogger who spends a great deal of time laying out the logical reasons people should be concerned about existential risk and developing a mathematical framework for friendly AI. Yudkowsky has a knack for walking people through the logical constraints that a computer scientist might want to consider when building an artificial intelligence to help make sure it doesn’t light up and take over the world. “He is a good candidate for being the most important person on the planet,” Schwall says of Yudkowsky. Backers of the Singularity Institute and this type of work include Peter Thiel, the first investor in Facebook, Jaan Tallinn, one of the programmers who helped build Skype Technologies, and companies such as Microsoft (MSFT), Motorola (MSI), and Fidelity Investments.

Tallinn attended this year’s summit and delivered an impassioned speech about the need to direct more money toward the prevention of existential risk. Estimates bandied about at the conference placed worldwide spending on existential risk at about $59 million per year. With this in mind, Tallinn made a $100,000 donation to the Singularity Institute on the spot and then called on other philanthropists to stop thinking about boosting their “social status” by donating to the usual do-gooder causes. Instead, the rich should support longer-term efforts. “Future societies will look back on us and feel depressed because of the actions we did not do,” he said.

This kind of talk isn’t limited to technophiles suffering from midlife crises; there is, in fact, a youthful existential risk contingent, too. Thomas Eliot, 23, bounded around the Singularity Summit in a uniform consisting of red Converse All-Stars, jeans, a bow tie, and rosy, fresh-faced cheeks. Eliot, who had just obtained a math degree from Willamette University, plans to spend the next year or two living off his savings while he studies machine learning and AI. He’s also been tapped by Schwall as the executive director of SHFSH. “An unfriendly artificial intelligence could cause a negative Singularity and turn the entire planet into paper clips,” Eliot warns. “Even if the chances of something like this happening are low, it would be the worst thing ever.”

Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.
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