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Sep 27, 2007

SCADA (in)Security’s Going to Cost Us

Posted by in categories: cybercrime/malcode, defense, existential risks

When I read about the “Aurora Generator Test” video that has been leaked to the media I wondered “why leak it now now and who benefits.” Like many of you, I question the reasons behind any leak from an “unnamed source” inside the US Federal government to the media. Hopefully we’ll all benefit from this particular leak.

Then I thought back to a conversation I had at a trade show booth I was working in several years ago. I was speaking with a fellow from the power generation industry. He indicated that he was very worried about the security ramifications of a hardware refresh of the SCADA systems that his utility was using to control its power generation equipment. The legacy UNIX-based SCADA systems were going to be replaced by Windows based systems. He was even more very worried that the “air gaps” that historically have been used to physically separate the SCADA control networks from power company’s regular data networks might be removed to cut costs.

Thankfully on July 19, 2007 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposed to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation a set of new, and much overdue, cyber security standards that will, once adopted and enforced do a lot to help make an attacker’s job a lot harder. Thank God, the people who operate the most critically important part of our national infrastructure have noticed the obvious.

Hopefully a little sunlight will help accelerate the process of reducing the attack surface of North America’s power grid.

After all, the march to the Singularity will go a lot slower without a reliable power grid.

Matt McGuirl, CISSP

Sep 27, 2007

New field-deployable biosensor detects avian influenza virus in minutes instead of days

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, lifeboat

A new biosensor developed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) can detect avian influenza in just minutes. In addition to being a rapid test, the biosensor is economical, field-deployable, sensitive to different viral strains and requires no labels or reagents.

This kind of technology could be applied to real time monitoring of other diseases as well.


Photograph of the optical biosensor that is approximately 16 millimeters by 33 millimeters in size. The horizontal purple lines are the channels on the waveguide. Credit: Gary Meek

“We can do real-time monitoring of avian influenza infections on the farm, in live-bird markets or in poultry processing facilities,” said Jie Xu, a research scientist in GTRI’s Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory (EOSL)

Continue reading “New field-deployable biosensor detects avian influenza virus in minutes instead of days” »

Sep 6, 2007

The Other Side of the Immortality Coin

Posted by in category: existential risks

There are two sides to living as long as possible: developing the technologies to cure aging, such as SENS, and preventing human extinction risk, which threatens everybody. Unfortunately, in the life extensionist community, and the world at large, the balance of attention and support is lopsided in favor of the first side of the coin, while largely ignoring the second. I see people meticulously obsessed with caloric restriction and SENS, but apparently unaware of human extinction risks. There’s the global warming movement, sure, but no efforts to address the bio, nano, and AI risks.

It’s easy to understand why. Life extension therapies are a positive and happy thing, whereas existential risk is a negative and discouraging thing. The affect heuristic causes us to shy away from negative affect, while only focusing on projects with positive affect: life extension. Egocentric biases help magnify the effect, because it’s easier to imagine oneself aging and dying than getting wiped out along with billions of others as a result of a planetary plague, for instance. Attributional biases work against both sides of the immortality coin: because there’s no visible bad guy to fight, people aren’t as juiced up as they would be, about, say, protesting a human being like Bush.

Another element working against the risk side of the coin is the assignment of credit: a research team may be the first to significantly extend human life, in which case, the team and all their supporters get bragging rights. Prevention of existential risks is a bit hazier, consisting of networks of safeguards which all contribute a little bit towards lowering the probability of disaster. Existential risk prevention isn’t likely to be the way it is in the movies, where the hero punches out the mad scientist right before he presses the red button that says “Planet Destroyer”, but because of a cooperative network of individuals working to increase safety in the diverse areas that risks could emerge from: biotech, nanotech, and AI.

Present-day immortalists and transhumanists simply don’t care enough about existential risk. Many of them are at the same stage with regards to ideological progression as most of humanity is against the specter of death: accepting, in denial, dismissive. There are few things less pleasant to contemplate than humanity destroying itself, but it must be done anyhow, because if we slip and fall, there’s no getting up.

Continue reading “The Other Side of the Immortality Coin” »

Aug 27, 2007

Looking Human Extinction in the Face

Posted by in category: existential risks

A point on human extinction risk analysis.

To look at existential risk rationally requires that we maintain a cool, detached perspective. It’s somewhat hard to think of how this might be done, although watching videos of planetary destruction could actually help! As a detective needs to look at a few crime scenes before he can get experienced and move beyond being a simple gumshoe, existential risk analysts need to view simulations and thought experiments of planetary destruction before they can consider it without flinching. Because it is impossible to acquire experience of human extinction risk, as by definition no one is alive afterwards, we have to settle for simulations.

The reaction of many educated adults to extinction risk discussions reminds me of the reaction kids in my Middle School health classes had to the mention of the word “penis”: adolescent giggling. If I were to get onstage in front of a random audience and start talking about existential risk when they didn’t expect it, using words like “planetary destruction”, they’d probably start giggling, at least in their minds. Obviously, we have a way to mature as a society until we can look calmly at the prospect of our own demise. By resolving to do so yourself, you can be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

Last week a blogger for the Houston Chronicle, Eric Berger, covered my post on immortality and extinction risk, and the immaturity of most of the comments received is expected but also telling. One reader writes that we should hire Will Smith to save the world, another writes: “I don’t worry about this sort of thing, because when it happens, I’ll be dead and won’t care.” Just like how you get to see someone’s true self a little better when they’re a tad tipsy, we get to see what people really think of extinction risk analysis by their anonymous comments on a big website. When people are on the record, they aren’t likely to make pithy comments like those on the blog, but they might be thinking them, and what they say in public is likely to be a dressed-up version of these sentiments. For instance, there’s an article that appeared in The Mercury on the 22nd of April in 2003, “Disastronomer Royal: More Apocalyptic then the Pope”, which exemplifies the reaction to those who take the prospect of extinction risk seriously, referring to Martin Rees in this case. Extinction denialist articles are not hard to find on the Internet: just Google them.

Ideally, existential risk analysis should be getting hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, as the study of global warming does today. Until there are planetary immune systems in place that can respond so quickly and comprehensively that the likelihood of terminal disaster is reduced to practically nothing, existential risk mitigation should be the number one priority of the human species. And the first step is for individuals, such as yourself, to look at the prospect of human extinction in a serious way.

Aug 21, 2007

Risks Not Worth Worrying About

Posted by in categories: defense, futurism, lifeboat

There are dozens of published existential risks; there are undoubtedly many more that Nick Bostrom did not think of in his paper on the subject. Ideally, the Lifeboat Foundation and other organizations would identify each of these risks and take action to combat them all, but this simply isn’t realistic. We have a finite budget and a finite number of man-hours to spend on the problem, and our resources aren’t even particularly large compared with other non-profit organizations. If Lifeboat or other organizations are going to take serious action against existential risk, we need to identify the areas where we can do the most good, even at the expense of ignoring other risks. Humans like to totally eliminate risks, but this is a cognitive bias; it does not correspond to the most effective strategy. In general, when assessing existential risks, there are a number of useful heuristics:

- Any risk which has become widely known, or an issue in contemporary politics, will probably be very hard to deal with. Thus, even if it is a legitimate risk, it may be worth putting on the back burner; there’s no point in spending millions of dollars for little gain.

- Any risk which is totally natural (could happen without human intervention), must be highly improbable, as we know we have been on this planet for a hundred thousand years without getting killed off. To estimate the probability of these risks, use Laplace’s Law of Succession.

- Risks which we cannot affect the probability of can be safely ignored. It does us little good to know that there is a 1% chance of doom next Thursday, if we can’t do anything about it.

Continue reading “Risks Not Worth Worrying About” »

Aug 18, 2007

Lifeboat Foundation Interview on Betterhumans

Posted by in category: lifeboat

Recently, our international spokesperson, Philippe Van Nedervelde, spoke to the deputy editor of Betterhumans, Parish Mozdzierz, on the Lifeboat Foundation, its goals and activities. Here is the first question:

Betterhumans: How did the formation of the Lifeboat Foundation come about?

Philippe Van Nedervelde: Lifeboat Foundation’s founder, Eric Klien, was shaken wide awake by 9/11. The new reality of what we call (exponentially accelerating) “Asymmetric Destructive Capability” (ADC) fully hit him: ever smaller groups of people can create ever more enormous amounts of damage. And all of this thanks to advances in technology. As a bracelet-wearing cryonicist, he knew of the potentials of nanotechnology (having attended MIT Nanotechnology Group meetings in the late 1980s), and that 9/11 was just a taste of things to come. Accordingly, the Lifeboat Foundation was incorporated within months of 9/11.

Read the whole thing here.

Aug 7, 2007

Power The Future, Through Cow Manure?

Posted by in category: sustainability

(via IsraGood)

With many governments pursuing new ways to power their cities via green energy, it looks like they soon may have another option to add to their list.

While most people think of cows as a “unconverted” forms of lunch and dinner, these harmless beasts may be able to energize our communities through the smelly presents that they often leave behind.

(Globes Online) GES said that the Hefer Valley plant is the first large-scale plant of its kind in Israel, and one of the first in the world. The plant utilizes 600 tons of manure a day. The manure is sterilized, and the solid and liquid waste are then processed to produce methane, which drives the generators to make electricity.

Continue reading “Power The Future, Through Cow Manure?” »

Aug 6, 2007

NASA designs nuclear asteroid deflector

Posted by in categories: asteroid/comet impacts, existential risks, lifeboat, space

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has designed a nuclear-warhead-carrying spacecraft, that would be boosted by the US agency’s proposed Ares V cargo launch vehicle, to deflect asteroids.

The Ares V launch vehicle is scheduled to first fly in 2018. It would launch 130 tons to LEO.

I welcome this study for providing a clearer analysis of the deflection options and the analyzing costs of searching for threatening asteroids.

The 8.9m (29ft)-long “Cradle” spacecraft would carry six 1,500kg (3,300lb) missile-like interceptor vehicles that would carry one 1.2MT B83 nuclear warhead each, with a total mass of 11,035kg.

Continue reading “NASA designs nuclear asteroid deflector” »

Jul 31, 2007

Chinese nuclear sub shows up on Google Earth?

Posted by in categories: defense, military, nuclear weapons

Increasingly, tools readily available on the Internet enable independent specialists or even members of the general public to do intelligence work that used to be the monopoly of agencies like the CIA, KGB, or MI6. Playing the role of an armchair James Bond, Hans K. Kristensen, a nuclear weapons specialist at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, D.C., recently drew attention to images on Google Earth of Chinese sites. Kristensen believes that the pictures shed light on China’s deployment of its second-generation of nuclear weapons systems: one appears to be a new ballistic missile submarine [see above image]; others may capture the replacement of liquid-fueled rockets with solid-fuel rockets at sites in north-central China, within range of ICBM fields in southern Russia.

Source: IEEE Spectrum. An excellent example of how open source intelligence outsmart military intelligence.

See also: Nuclear terrorism: the new day after from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. From the article:

Finally, there is the question of whether the U.S. government would behave with rational restraint. This, of course, assumes that there is a government. A terrorist nuclear attack on Washington could easily kill the president, vice president, much of Congress and the Supreme Court. But in a July 12 Washington Post op-ed, Norman Ornstein revealed that the federal government has refused to make contingency plans for its own nuclear decapitation, which means that U.S. nuclear weapons could be in the hands of small, enraged launch control teams with no clear line of authority above them. Assuming that the federal government was still there, however, we can only imagine (using the reaction to the loss of a mere two buildings on 9/11 as a metric of comparison) the public rage at the loss of a city and the intense, perhaps irresistible, pressure on the president to make someone, somewhere pay for this atrocity.

Jul 17, 2007

Preserving other species with whom we share the planet

Posted by in category: sustainability

Dear Lifeboat Readers,

I am a member of the Neuroscience Scientific Advisory Board at the Lifeboat Foundation and have recently posted to the BioPreserver Program page (please read the page replicated below).

I would like to initiate a conversation about expending more effort on preserving other species and their habitats. We are all understandably concerned about humanity’s survival and the Lifeboat Foundation is a testament to the numerous technologically advanced ways we can ensure our species’ survival in the future. However, I would like to hear from others who may be concerned that in our focus on our own survival we may not be doing enough for the myriad of other species with whom we share the planet. I would argue that there is less attention paid to the survival of our species’ moral integrity than there ought to be. Would it speak well of our species if we survived while everyone else (other species) disappeared? To put it bluntly, in the future, after having escaped numerous threats to survival, will we be able to look in the mirror as a species and like what we see?

For instance, with the current rate of losses, our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, will be extinct in the wild in 50 years. The causes are indisputably anthropogenic. If we let this happen, what will it do to the morale and the psychological fiber of our species? The question of survival is not only a question of physical and psychological survival, but also survival of our integrity.

Continue reading “Preserving other species with whom we share the planet” »