One way to quantify the danger posed by an existential risk is to examine how much countries will need to cooperate in order to avoid it. Since successful avoidance of an existential risk can be considered a public good (something that benefits the well-being of all members of a society) we can borrow some terminology and results from economics to better understand different types of existential risk.1 2 In the summary below, we consider how much cooperation between countries is needed to avert different kinds of risks:
- Best-shot public goods can be provided by one member of a population but benefit all members. For example, if one nation decides to save the Earth from cataclysmic asteroid impacts, everyone in the world can enjoy the benefits (survival).
- Summation public goods are born from the aggregate action of all actors. Atmospheric greenhouse gases and ozone layer depletion are examples of summation public goods. Many countries need to work together to keep humanity safe from the threat of runaway global warming or of a depleted ozone layer.
- Weakest-link public goods are those that require the active participation of every member. For example, biological weapons research within a single country could be an existential risk. Averting this risk would require every country to cooperate to make certain types of research illegal. If one country doesn’t cooperate, they put everyone in danger.
We’ve focused on countries here because they are currently the most powerful level of government and are thus crucial actors in our quest to avoid existential threats. Most of the key actions that must be taken to avert global catastrophes must be undertaken by countries, such as changing and enforcing laws, completing large projects, and conducting international diplomacy.
It can be useful to think of human countries as a small community of about two hundred superbeings that are trying to learn, think, and act in ways that serve their goals – including self preservation. The degree to which countries can cooperate is a major factor in humanity’s ability to avert existential risks.
The core problem with major upcoming technologies including artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and biotechnology is that they each may lead to weakest-link public risks. Averting risks of this sort requires more than just a shallow consensus; it requires the active participation of every major player. Our global society needs to begin preparing for the possibility that we will face one or more weakest-link public risks during the coming decades. Weakest-link risks set the proverbial bar very high; global cooperation is an enormous challenge.
It is also during the next several decades that we will be approaching an incredible opportunity: the chance to spread beyond Earth. Natural existential risks are rare, but if we stay on the Earth long enough, one of them is certain to destroy us.
To survive and thrive, humanity will need to avoid all existential threats and succeed at colonizing beyond Earth. The extent to which the countries of the world can cooperate is very likely to dictate our success or failure in both of these challenges.