Existential Risk Management

What is an acceptable level of risk when tempting existential threats; the very future of humanity, or the universe itself? How’s a fifty-fifty chance of obliteration sound? Seems high. One in a hundred? Astronomically high, no question.

How about one in a billion? This is where the average person begins to feel reasonably safe, but one in a billion is a large number. The neurotoxin BTX can be lethal in humans at just one part per trillion by body weight. The C. botulinum bacteria that produces it can be found in topsoil throughout the world and their spores can survive boiling.

One in sextillion? Most people can’t even write out one sextillion in numerals if you ask them to. Seems like a safe risk level to operate at. But then again, if you programmed the Summit supercomputer to perform a sextillion independent calculations, it could knock it out in under ninety minutes—less time than it would take to watch Dr. Strangelove.

Science prefers not to deal in certainties, but the only acceptable level of existential risk we can take on as a species is zero.

But humans are diverse and fickle creatures.

They made laws, created oversight committees and review boards, and controlled resources from currency to capital to chromium. Many branches of research were restricted, only to be pursued beyond the Earth-Luna system with strict and redundant failsafe and quarantine procedures. Others were completely forbidden; they would introduce risk.

The tree of science was still flourishing, but it had been pruned, cut back and manicured. Unnatural.

Conrad wasn’t having any part of it.

What miracles might be unlocked if only we had the courage to try? When trains were invented, people feared that the human body could not survive travel at 30mph. And when the first blood transfusions were proposed, people feared it could transmute a human into a sheep. We could be robbing ourselves, and all future generations, numbering in the trillions of trillions, of lives free from disease or pain, free from the limitations of the physical world. And all because we had some deep and intangible fear we might all roll snake eyes at the exact same time. It was ridiculous.

He quietly assembled a small following and set up a research outpost on a dirty ice potato in the Oort cloud.

Conrad and his followers operated for some time before authorities caught on to their scheme. But when their compound was breeched, Conrad and his team were nowhere to be found. There was plenty of food and oxygen, the outpost was fully functional, and the one starship they arrived in was still present, but not a single soul remained.

A mystery, to be sure. But no one could calculate where the greater danger might lie, where the risk might be higher: letting Conrad potentially continue his work unchecked, or solving his disappearance.

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