’s Jeff Bezos can save America’s largest source of clean power. Here’s how.


“These big companies have huge, sometimes much bigger, influence on supply chain decisions than governments do.” — Michael Shellenberger

Does the above headline look hyperbolic to you? I think it’s true — and we can help make it true by joining a long list of prominent scientists like James Hansen and Kerry Emanuel to sign the petition urging Amazon to save Ohio’s clean power. Consider the consequences if Amazon amends its 100 percent renewable electricity goal to include nuclear. Amazon’s goal would then function as a Clean Energy Standard (CES), not just a renewable goal (RPS). As it stands, nuclear is excluded from Ohio’s 12.5% RPS — as well as federal renewable subsidies. If Amazon redefines their corporate goal to include nuclear that will open a badly needed discussion: “Does humanity need to decarbonize, or to build more renewables?”

Jeff Bezos is one of America’s most-respected company leaders. When he explains why Amazon decided to focus on serious decarbonization people everywhere will listen. Certainly Ohio politicians will listen to a fast-growing company that’s bringing jobs to Ohio. And I think Apple, Facebook and Google will pay close attention when Jeff Bezos puts the Amazon brand on CES policies that support nuclear + solar + wind. More people should know that Jeff Bezos is one of the backers of Breakthrough Energy Ventures which intends to invest in promising advanced nuclear fission. Bezos has also invested in the nuclear fusion startup General Fusion.

I think that respected companies can change public policy much faster than working only through Washington DC. By adopting CES policies they exert leverage on public opinion while giving state leaders political cover to resist the powerful renewable lobbies.

You probably know people who work at Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook. Ask them whether they think our goal should be to  decarbonize, or is it just to build more and more renewables? They can promote discussions inside these companies. They can raise questions at TGIF or similar (perhaps that’s too much to ask, but it would be very interesting to hear Larry explain why Alphabet doesn’t support nuclear in their clean data center portfolio).

Please donate at Environmental Progress and please sign the petition! The more people who sign the petition the more that signals to Jeff Bezos that there are a lot of people who care deeply about serious decarbonization. Associating the Amazon brand with clean, reliable nuclear will be positive for Amazon.

How to be an Errorist: if anti-nuclear content was factually true it wouldn’t be anti-nuclear


I see far too many anti-nuclear press reports. It truly looks like all the big media journos have their favorite UCS and Greenpeace contacts in their Rolodex. And it is a fact that “Fear Sells”, whether clicks or newsprint. So I had a chuckle today when I read this little essay How to be an Errorist from the Northwest Energy folks. They were motivated to write this June 17, 2015 by the satirical New Yorker piece “Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans.”

While the story is made-up, many of these fact-resistant folks seem to be radically opposed to nuclear energy. This normally wouldn’t be of great concern, anyone can believe what they want. But when that ignorance (deception?) is given legitimacy through public policy discussions, then it can create a problem for society as a whole (impeding the development of new nuclear energy resources to combat climate change comes to mind).

So, I have a challenge for you Dear Reader: please email or Tweet me if you have encountered an anti-nuclear article that is factually correct. I’ve been scratching my head trying to remember such an instance — but I can’t think of a single case. If the content was factually true it wouldn’t be anti-nuclear.

South Australia’s tattered environmental remains

State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment South Australia State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

Yesterday I gave the second keynote address at the South Australia Natural Resource Management (NRM) Science Conference at the University of Adelaide (see also a brief synopsis of Day 1 here). Unfortunately, I’m missing today’s talks because of an acute case of man cold, but at least I can stay at home and work while sipping cups of hot tea.

Many people came up afterwards and congratulated me for “being brave enough to tell the truth”, which both encouraged and distressed me – I am encouraged by the positive feedback, but distressed by the lack of action on the part of our natural resource management leaders.

The simple truth is that South Australia’s biodiversity and ecosystems are in shambles, yet few seem to appreciate this.

So for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend, I’ve uploaded the…

View original post 959 more words

#SavetheNukes Saving Illinois’ Nuclear Plants: We must act NOW!

From the comments:

Stephen Maloney asks:

If nuclear plants cannot compete anymore with other energy sources of which there is an abundance, why is it fair and right to force people to pay corporate welfare and prop up an uncompetitive and aging technology?

Gene Grecheck replies (Gene is Immediate Past President of ANS)

Stephen, because that competition is not on a level playing field. Wind and solar, for example, are so heavily subsidized (by all of us taxpayers) that they can often push their electricity into the market a negative prices, that is, they can afford to pay the market to take their electricity. They can only do that because their subsidy is greater than that payment. Subsidization of intermittent electricity sources then results in the need for heavy reliance on backup power to be available when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. That backup is usually natural gas fired: meaning that once again we are relying on power sources that pollute the air and add CO2 to the atmosphere. Every time a nuclear plant shuts down, emissions go up….negating years of efforts to reduce emissions.

There are many implications of energy choices; they must all be considered, and not just focus on short term prices.


The plethora of wind and solar subsidies and mandates, plus cheap natural gas, is forcing abandonment of existing US nuclear plants. It is the most remarkably stupid energy policy that I can imagine, but that is the way US politics is playing out. Somehow we have to get the attention of Illinois state legislators to pass the Next Generation Energy Plan before the end of November. Otherwise Excelon will shutter the Clinton and Quad Cities plants — resulting in the loss of over 20 percent of Illinois’ clean energy and approximately 1,500 jobs.

In today’s ANS Nuclear Cafe Gene Grecheck and Brett Rampal explain how urgent it is to take action:

If you think someone else is going to stop nuclear plants from closing, it’s time to take off the blinders and take action. That was the message being touted during the #SavetheNukes Summit in Chicago on October 22-24, organized by Environmental Progress with the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Young Members Group (YMG), among others.

The summit was not held in Illinois by coincidence. After success in New York, those who were involved in the passage of the Clean Energy Standard and associated Zero Emissions Credit that saved the Fitzpatrick, Ginna, and Nine Mile Point plants felt invigorated to bring the fight to the next battlefield.

More than 70 nuclear advocates from diverse backgrounds (environmentalists, leaders of nuclear professional groups, nuclear advocacy groups, nuclear professionals, students, etc.) attended, including many ANS members, especially students!

Moving and inspirational are not usually the words used to describe nuclear meetings, but the understanding in the room was that time is short, and we need unity, organization, and fast action to save Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants,, which are slated for closure (or as one summit attendee put it, abandonment). Without the Next Generation Energy Plan that must be passed by the Illinois legislature in November  (just three weeks from now), the abandonment of the Clinton and Quad Cities plants would result in the loss of over 20 percent of Illinois’ clean energy and approximately 1,500 jobs!

If it passes with the nuclear component intact, the plants will get the small price support necessary to remain competitive in a market flooded with cheap natural gas and subsidized wind and solar.  “This is just smart energy policy,” said ANS member Lenka Kollar, who was representing the International Youth Nuclear Congress (IYNC) at the summit. “Keeping these valuable assets online is crucial for mitigating climate change and ensuring energy security for the future.”

Gene Grecheck with summit organizer & nuclear advocate Rachel Pritzker on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.

Gene Grecheck with summit organizer & nuclear advocate Rachel Pritzker on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.

The summit was intended to motivate everyone in attendance to reach out to their networks of colleagues, friends, and family and get them to take action. After hearing about some lessons learned from other powerful and successful social movements (woman’s suffrage, gay rights, AIDS, etc.), summit attendees universally agreed that drastic and novel action was needed and could help us achieve our goals.

Everyone reading this article needs to take this message to heart and use social media to flood Illinois legislators with messages about the critical importance of both the Clinton and Quad Cities plants in terms of maintaining Illinois’ position as a clean energy leader. It is particularly vital that those who live in Illinois send letters and op-ed pieces to their local newspapers, and blast supportive messages out via their social media. Direct communication from ANS members in Illinois to their legislators is especially important to make the needed legislation possible. Don’t let the legislators only hear from the fossil energy interests and the tired old anti-nuclear arguments.


If you have never considered actively advocating for nuclear energy before, we urge you to do it now. And we do mean NOW. Today. Before we lose two more large sources of clean energy and reverse any efforts to improve our air quality. Thank you for your action! And be sure to tag @ans_org and @ans_YMG on Twitter!

A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy

Roger Pielke Jr. summarizes the most critical points from his work on climate and energy policies that work. Hint, Kyoto is not one of these policies. Any proposed policy should be analyzed in the context of the Kaya Identity. Which of the four factors does the policy act on?

Carbon emissions = C = P x (GDP / P) x (TE / GDP) x (C / TE) [where TE is total energy]

In the following excerpt Dr. Pielke examines why effective decarbonization must be grounded on accelerating energy innovation (C / TE)): 

By now there is really no excuse for any professional involved in climate policy not to understand the implications of the Kaya Identity. The risks of not understanding the Kaya Identity is that one can get caught out proposing magic as the main mechanism of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Developed by Yoichi Kaya, a Japanese scientist, in the 1980s as means of generating emissions projections for use in climate models, the identity is also an extremely powerful tool of policy analysis, because it encompasses all of the tools in the policy toolbox that might be used to reduce emissions. The identity is comprised of four parts:

  • Population
  • Per capita wealth
  • Energy intensity of the economy (energy consumption/GDP)
  • Carbon intensity of energy (carbon dioxide emissions/energy consumption)

If we wish to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide with the goal of stabilizing its concentrations in the atmosphere, then we only have four levers, represented by each of the factors in the Kaya Identity.

In The Climate Fix, I simplify even further by combining population and per capita wealth, the result of which is simply GDP, and by combining energy intensity and carbon intensity, the product of which is carbon intensity of GDP.

That means that there are only two ways to reduce emissions to a level consistent with stabilization of concentrations at a low level (pick your favorite number, 350, 450, 550 ppm — the policy implications are identical). One is to reduce GDP. The second is to reduce the carbon intensity of GDP — to decarbonize. While there are a few brave/foolish souls who advocate a willful imposition of poverty as the remedy to accumulating carbon dioxide, that platform has not gathered much political steam. (See discussion of the Iron Law in TCF).

Instead, the only option left is innovation in how we produce and consume energy. That is it — innovation is the only game in town. Consequently, the correct metric of progress in innovation is a decrease in the ratio of carbon to GDP. For those who wish to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions, the proper policy debate is thus how do we stimulate energy innovation?

Read the rest of Roger’s essay, then please buy The Climate Fix. It’s a keeper:-)

Why the environmental movement is important for nuclear power

In 2014 Academy Award Nominee Robert Stone, the environmental activist Kirsty Gogan and the Swiss Entrepreneur Daniel Aegerter co-founded Energy for Humanity (EfH). EfH is a rare breed of non-profit — an NGO that is both pro-humanity and pro-nuclear.

Energy for Humanity has made a significant impact on both the political leadership and the public. Testimony to this impact is that EfH has been shortlisted for Business Green’s prestigious 2016 NGO Of The Year award [there are only three other nominees, none of which are the Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace crowd]. Another example is last year’s biggest climate event, the COP 21 Climate Summit in Paris, where EfH organised and hosted a series of high profile, well-attended events. One of these events was a major press conference for four of the world’s most renowned climate scientists.

The scientists — Kenneth Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James E. Hansen of Columbia University and Tom Wigley of the University of Adelaide — used the news conference to build on an argument they first made as a group in a 2013 open letter to environmentalists. The Guardian published a related op-ed from the four.

“It’s time to stop using the sky as a waste dump. The climate doesn’t care whether the electricity comes from a wind turbine or a nuclear reactor. The climate just cares about carbon.”

Dr. Caldeira

With that background I think you can see why I asked Kirsty Gogan to do a guest post for Seekerblog. The following first appeared on NEI Magazine 22 April 2015]:

The documentary film Pandora’s Promise provided a platform for nuclear advocates to speak up for nuclear power as a green technology, prompting discussion and raising awareness of nuclear energy. A new organisation hopes to continue the momentum, explains Kirsty Gogan.

Why the environmental movement is important for nuclear power

Twenty-five years after the world was first alerted to the need to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions or irreversibly alter the Earth’s climate system, coal remains not only the world’s number one source of electrical energy, it remains the fastest growing.

Currently, 80% of the world’s renewable energy comes from hydroelectric power and there are few rivers left to dam. Wind and solar energy, the favoured energy technologies of environmental activists, have boomed in recent years. But their growth is a fraction of the growth of fossil fuels, rising to meet increasing global energy demand.

Crunching the numbers, the need for nuclear energy is clear. The world’s leading experts, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency and the UN, have argued for a doubling or tripling of nuclear energy – requiring as many as 1000 new reactors – to stabilise carbon emissions. Moreover, there is a growing consensus among climate scientists that due to the impact of cumulative CO2 emissions, even an 80% reduction in fossil fuel use by 2050 will not be enough.

The question of safety

So, why is it that most people think the safest form of electricity generation is the most dangerous? (In fact, nuclear is the safest form of electricity, against a metric of deaths per TWh. Dr James Hansen and Dr Kharecha have provided evidence that nuclear energy has so far saved 1.8million lives by replacing coal and gas plants that would otherwise have been built resulting in deaths from particulate air pollution.)

In most countries with nuclear power, the maximum allowable dose limit for the public is 1mSv. Yet natural background radiation in the UK varies from 2mSv to 7mSv. However, there is no dose limit for coal fired power stations, which do emit radioactive emissions, as well as mercury, lead, and benzene.

People are afraid of nuclear partly due to an historical lack of trust. But it is also because the industry has spent years persuading everyone that nuclear is uniquely dangerous.

To be clear, I do not mean the actual safety performance or its importance. I’m talking about the messages being sent and the culture that has developed. The industry has failed to appreciate that by being so intent on telling everyone how seriously they take safety, their reassurances often have the opposite effect and leave everyone convinced what they are doing is incredibly dangerous.

Working to a quarter of the legal limit on dose has quite the opposite effect on public confidence as what is intended. Not only that, but it has forced the regulator to continuously demand higher standards, at a higher cost, to satisfy the perception of infinite danger, with negligible, or even negative benefits since it makes nuclear more difficult to build and fossil fuels more attractive.

Nuclear could learn from other industries. The glamour of the jet set era may be well and truly over, but airlines market themselves on their service, not on their safety record. Obviously we want to be confident that the airline is properly regulated, and that staff are professional and highly trained, but this should be an internal best practice, not an external marketing campaign. There’s a difference.

We need innovation not only in technology: we need social innovation too.

Pandora’s promise and a sea-change in sentiment

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?”
John Maynard Keynes

Robert Stone’s documentary film Pandora’s Promise shattered the long-standing taboo against discussing nuclear energy as an environmental positive. It relates the story of how life-long environmentalists became staunch pro-nuclear advocates. In the course of explaining that journey, the film makes the case that nuclear is not only safer than most people fear, but essential to addressing the threat some fear most: climate change.

Since its release in June 2013, the film not only sparked a public debate, it created a safe space for nuclear supporters to speak out, shifting the discourse on nuclear energy. A series of public endorsements for nuclear followed Pandora’s Promise, including leading climate scientists and the New York Times editorial board. High-profile endorsements of nuclear energy continue to emerge, especially from figures respected in the environmental community, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson and US EPA administrators, along with a growing number of environmentalists, climate scientists, and policy makers. In January, sixty-six of the world’s leading conservation biologists signed an open letter to support nuclear expansion on environmental grounds. It is a powerful statement for the conservation community to speak up for nuclear as a green technology.

The success of Pandora’s Promise illustrates a tremendous gap in the nuclear education and advocacy space. The overwhelming response – from mainstream greens, journalists, government officials, and academics – was that Pandora’s Promise filled a much-needed role of being a strong, independent voice articulating the need for nuclear. Until now, existing messaging has largely come from governments and industry, leaving the field open for anti-nuclear groups. With enthusiasm from Pandora’s Promise still high, but the film’s campaign coming to a close, Robert Stone, Daniel Aegerter and I cofounded a new NGO, Energy for Humanity, to fill that gap.

No CO2, no problem?

Some may argue that CO2 emissions do not play a role in warming temperatures and that the nuclear industry should therefore not attempt to find common cause with those who support nuclear as a non-CO2 emitting power source.

But if we take such climate deniers at their word, why shouldn’t the world simply turn to much cheaper and readily available natural gas? It is increasingly plentiful and it doesn’t pollute. In fact, that is precisely what is happening; the US is currently shutting down perfectly good reactors in favour of cheaper, easy to build, natural gas turbines.

There are currently two core arguments in favour of nuclear technology:
1) We need to stop burning all forms of fossil fuels within the next few decades and nuclear energy is the only viable way of doing that; and
2) The developing world is rightly demanding more and more energy. The only way to completely meet that growing demand without burning more fossil fuels is with nuclear energy.

Every credible scientific or policy-making body concludes that a massive expansion of nuclear energy is critical if we are serious about transitioning from fossil fuels, not only for electricity generation, but also for industrial heat, desalination and transport.

However, we know that real issues around safety, waste, proliferation and cost prevent conventional nuclear energy from being scaled up globally to the extent necessary. This is especially the case in countries that do not have the required skills and infrastructure to build, maintain and operate conventional nuclear power plants, but which will account for the lion’s share of growth in energy demand. In addition, these huge plants require such large up-front capital investment that they are almost impossible to finance in the private sector.

This is why we must look to advanced reactors that are inherently safer, eliminate waste and are easier to build and operate. It may take ten years for these designs to prove their potential but this does not stop the USA, Russia, China, India, Canada, UK and many other countries, along with major investors, taking nuclear innovation very seriously.

About the author

Kirsty Gogan is an established expert in climate and energy communications with experience as a senior advisor to UK Government, industry, academic networks and non-profit organisations. She is cofounder CEO of Energy for Humanity, a new NGO working to meet the goal of universal access to clean and cheap energy.

Back to the EfH impact at COP21. Kirsty spoke at five events, including chairing the press conference. She organized a sold-out screening of Pandora’s Promise followed by a debate between Robert Stone and antinuclear activist Yves Marignac. EfH was everywhere, generating a corresponding amount of high quality media coverage – my count is over forty articles. All are worthwhile — I’ll pick just two to recommend:

By Andy @Revkin for The New York Times In Paris, Negotiators Trim a Draft Climate Agreement, Climate Scientists Press for Nuclear Energy, Activists Prepare for Failure

By Michael Specter for The New Yorker How Not To Debate Nuclear Energy And Climate Change

Energy density: a lifetime of energy in the palm of your hand

Golf ball size lifetime energy

Barry Brook got my attention in 2010 with his post that I remember as “The Golf Ball and the Soda Can”. If we generated all of our energy via fast spectrum reactors similar to the IFR, then your personal lifetime energy needs would be supplied by the golf ball-sized lump of thorium or uranium pictured at left. That’s your total energy consumption including farming, transportation, industrial uses, heating and air conditioning. Everything except the calories you derive from food. And that’s at the extravagant American energy consumption level.

This tiny amount of input fuel can be pure metallic thorium or “depleted” fertile uranium-238, fissionable uranium-235 or used PWR fuel (the dreaded “nuclear waste”). 


All your waste

What are the waste products of your lifetime energy consumption? About the size of the pictured soda can, which is a little bit bigger than the golf ball because the fission products are more atoms of lighter elements which take up more volume. In 300 years your Coke can of waste will decay to the level of the background radiation around the original mined uranium ore. No need to talk about thousands of years of storage.

George Stanford’s calculation follows: The density of metallic uranium is 19 g/cc. Thus the volume of 1 kg is 52.6 cc. That’s a sphere with a diameter of 4.6 cm (1.8 inches) — slightly bigger than a ping-pong ball (4.0 cm). The volume is proportional to what you use for the per-person average energy consumption. The “waste volume” will be larger — maybe about the size of a soda can. But remember, the waste volume calculated that way is irrelevant — for disposal on land, it’s the heat generation that has to be managed, so the volume of the disposal facility is orders of magnitude larger than a soda can.

In the U.S., the energy per person per year is given as 8.25 TOE (tonnes of oil equivalent). If a lifetime is 85 years, that’s 700 TOE. One TOE = 11,630 kilowatt hours, for a lifetime total of 8 million kW-hr. As a rule of thumb, fissioning one gram of heavy metal (uranium) releases 1 MWth-day, or roughly 8 MWe-h = 8,000 kWe-h. So 8M/8k = 1,000 grams — one kg of fissions — which, of course, means one kilogram of fission products. If the average density of the waste form were 2 g/cc, then the volume would be 0.5 liter. Ball-park calculation only, assuming all energy comes from nuclear-generated electricity.

Note that that’s total US energy consumption divided by the number of people (not counting calories derived from food). That makes it 850 grams per 85-year lifetime instead of 1 kg. Still in the soda-can range for the fission products (a very crude approximation at best, since the waste form is not defined). Note that burning 700 tonnes of oil produces about 2,000 tonnes of CO2, for a waste-weight ratio >2 million to one (for whatever that’s worth).

Energy density is critical to transition our industrial societies from fossil to zero-carbon energy. You can read more details on fast spectrum reactors and energy density in this 2011 paper Advanced Nuclear Power Systems to Mitigate Climate Change.

Martin Rees: Will technology’s dark side eclipse humanity’s bright future?

Martin Rees 10th anniversary.

In November 2015, Martin Rees gave the Oxford Martin School 10th Anniversary Lecture [here’s the video, here’s the transcript]. The theme of the lecture is that the 21st century is special — let’s make sure we get to the other side intact. We humans have technologies under development that make me think of Stewart Brand’s famous quote in the Whole Earth Catalog “we are as gods, we might as well get good at it”. Today Stewart says

“What I’m saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it.”

We have to get good at our job because our technologies, from fossil fuels to biotech to AI, give us the opportunity to screw it up. So we need to pay very close attention to making our way successfully through the next 100 years. Lord Rees:

Why is the 21st century special? Our planet has existed for 45 million centuries, but this the first when one species – ours – can determine the biosphere’s fate. New technologies are transforming our lives and society – they’re even changing human beings themselves. And they’re inducing novel vulnerabilities. Ecosystems are being stressed because there are more of us (world population is higher) and we’re all more demanding of resources. We’re deep into what some call the Anthropocene.

And we’ve had one lucky escape already. At any time in the Cold War era, the superpowers could have stumbled towards nuclear Armageddon through muddle and miscalculation. Robert McNamara, US defence secretary at the time of the Cuba crisis, said after he retired that “[w]e came within a hairbreadth of nuclear war without realizing it. It’s no credit to us that we escaped – Khrushchev and Kennedy were lucky as well as wise.”

This is a terrific lecture, applying science-informed optimism to the benefits and risks of some of our most powerful technologies.

For the rest of this talk I’ll focus on a different topic –the promise, and the dark side, of novel technologies that change society and empower individuals – and I’ll venture some speculations about the far future.

We live in a world increasingly dependent on elaborate networks: electric-power grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery, globally-dispersed manufacturing, and so forth. Unless these networks are highly resilient, their benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns — real-world analogues of what happened in 2008 to the financial system. Our cities would be paralysed without electricity. Supermarket shelves would be empty within days if supply chains were disrupted. Air travel can spread a pandemic worldwide within days. And social media can spread panic and rumour literally at the speed of light.

It’s imperative to guard against the downsides of such an interconnected world. Plainly this requires international collaboration. (For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness.)

On pandemics, Oxford Martin colleague Larry Brilliant has taught us how critical it is to invest in “early detection, early response”. Early detection is enabled by the growing power of our networks. Early response is enabled by human and physical infrastructure, and by investing in molecular biology so that we can rapidly analyze detected pathogens, then formulate and manufacture vaccines or antiviral compounds.

One of Martin Rees’s concerns is malign biotech, especially since CRISPR.

Malign or foolhardy individuals have far more leverage than in the past. It is hard to make a clandestine H-bomb. In contrast, biotech involves small-scale dual use equipment. Millions will one day have the capability to misuse it, just as they can misuse cybertech today. Indeed, biohacking is burgeoning even as a hobby and competitive game.

So what do we do about this risk? Regulation is useless for controlling the behavior of the “malign or foolhardy”. In fact we want to be very mindful that we do not entangle our best researchers in a net of over regulation. Because our best defense is exactly our rapid detection-response capabilities created to minimize the impact of natural pandemics.

What about the benefits and risks of advanced AI, specifically General Artificial Intelligence (GAI)?

The timescale for human-level AI may be decades, or it may be centuries. Be that as it may, it’s but an instant compared to the future horizons, and indeed far shorter than timescales of the Darwinian selection that led to humanity’s emergence.

I think it’s likely that the machines will gain dominance on Earth. This is because there are chemical and metabolic limits to the size and processing power of ‘wet’ organic brains. Maybe we’re close to these already. But no such limits constrain silicon based computers (still less, perhaps, quantum computers): for these, the potential for further development over the next billion years could be as dramatic as the evolution from pre-Cambrian organisms to humans. So, by any definition of ‘thinking’, the amount and intensity that’s done by organic human-type brains will be utterly swamped by the future cerebrations of AI.

Moreover, the Earth’s biosphere isn’t the optimal environment for advanced AI – interplanetary and interstellar space may be the preferred arena where robotic fabricators will have the grandest scope for construction, and where non-biological ‘brains’ may develop powers than humans can’t even imagine.

But we humans shouldn’t feel too humbled. We could be of special cosmic significance for jump-starting the transition to silicon-based (and potentially immortal) entities, spreading their influence far beyond the Earth, and far transcending our limitations.

So, even in this ‘concertinered’ timeline — extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past — this century may be a defining moment where humans could jeopardise life’s immense potential.That’s why the avoidance of complete extinction has special resonance for an astronomer.

That’s the rationale for the Future of Humanity Institute, the element of the Martin School that addresses ‘existential’ risks on the science fiction fringe.

Watch or read, and please tell your friends. We really, really need to focus much more energy on long term thinking.

I almost forgot to mention that Martin Rees is a cofounder of another prestigious risk research institution, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge.

More on the Oxford Martin School. Lastly, good news: our home star is good for another six billion years. Just imagine what we can accomplish before we are forced to move!

Oxford Martin School


Dr. James Martin founded the School in 2005 with Oxford’s largest ever benefaction. The mission of the Oxford Martin School is to develop practical solutions to the really hard problems.

Martin’s vision was that the Oxford Martin School should be a unique, interdisciplinary research community designed to address the most pressing global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, using rigorous interdisciplinary research to find solutions. This is vital because the problems facing humanity will become so severe, but so also are its new opportunities. A new methodology was needed for interdisciplinary research and problem-solving, and this came to pervade the Oxford Martin School.

The School now has over 30 institutes and projects concerned with different aspects of the future, from the governance of climate change to the possibilities of quantum physics; from the future of food to the implications of an ageing population; and from new economic thinking to nanotechnology in medicine. Each institute can only function by integrating multiple disciplines, and now separate institutes are becoming connected. Together, the different issues of the School connect to form an understanding of our future. The School has over 300 post-doctorate scholars and professors, working across the University of Oxford.

The Advisory Council of the School is populated by some of the most thoughtful and influential people that I know of. Other examples in addition to Martin Rees there are Nicholas Stern, Larry Brilliant and J. Craig Venter. The faculty is similarly first-rate, including Steve Rayner — one of the principals of the Hartwell Paper [see Kyoto Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy]. Steve has also been an important contributor to the birthplace of Ecomodernism at the Breakthrough Institute. See Climate Pragmatism, a revised and updated version of the Hartwell Paper.

The School is also home to the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), lead by Founding Director Prof. Nick Bostrom. Nick is the author of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, a superb introduction to the challenges of ensuring future AIs are friendly. Nick also directs the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology.

Michael Douglas narrates James Martin’s one hour documentary The Meaning Of The 21st Century based on the book of the same title. The film synopsis page says “THIS FILM IS ABOUT THE MOST VITALLY IMPORTANT SUBJECT OF OUR TIME”.