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Preventing Human Extinction

99.9% of all species that have ever inhabited Earth are now extinct, including 12 species of the genus Homo. The threat of human extinction is global, and it is driven by social, economic, technological and political forces operating at global scales. This course will explore several plausible scenarios by which human extinction (or near-extinction) could occur within the next 100 years. In this course, we will study the psychological, social, political, economic and epistemological barriers that frequently derail efforts to avert these catastrophes. We will explore diverse approaches to understanding these risks, strategies that could reduce them, and better ways to think and act as we move into an uncertain future. Students will engage these issues through academic reading, apocalyptic fiction, group discussion and writing. We will consider the role of human agency in the evolution of these risks and their prevention, and our responsibilities as 21st-century citizens.

Offered Spring Quarter by Paul Edwards and Steve Luby for 4 units


STS 10

Introduction to AI Safety

As we delegate more to artificial intelligence (AI) and integrate AI more in societal decision-making processes, we must find answers to how we can ensure AI systems are safe, follow ethical principles, and align with the creator's intent. Increasingly, many AI experts across academia and industry believe there is an urgent need for both technical and societal progress across AI alignment, ethics, and governance to understand and mitigate risks from increasingly capable AI systems and ensure that their contributions benefit society as a whole. Intro to AI Safety explores these questions in lectures with targeted readings, weekly quizzes, and group discussions. We are looking at the capabilities and limitations of current and future AI systems to understand why it is hard to ensure the reliability of existing AI systems. We will cover ongoing research efforts that tackle these questions, ranging from studies in reinforcement learning and computer vision to natural language processing. We will study work in interpretability, robustness, and governance of AI systems - to name a few. Basic knowledge about machine learning helps but is not required.

Offered Spring Quarter by Max Lamparth for 3 units

STS 132

Earth, Space, Bits: Debating the Nature and Future of Humanity

Are humans fundamentally symbiotic organisms who cannot exist apart from the rest of earthly life? Should humans try to alter their physiology in order to inhabit other planets? Or might the ultimate purpose of human existence be to leave organic biology behind entirely? This course explores a range of competing contemporary claims concerning the nature and future of humanity. It begins by reviewing the efforts of mid-20th century cybernetics to reconceive human beings as "complex information processing systems." It then traces how this redefinition has led to the development of several competing camps: an ecological wing that views human beings as complex systems that must achieve environmental homeostasis; a posthumanist wing that stresses the radical plasticity and adaptability of human organisms; and a transhumanist wing that seeks to unleash the potential of human information processes on a cosmic scale. Participants will have the opportunity to survey the scientific foundations of each position and debate their ethical and political implications.

Offered Winter Quarter by Dan Zimmer for 3-4 units


The Science and Politics of Apocalypse

For millennia, an apocalypse has been just around the corner. This course examines how expectations surrounding the end of the world - and the role that human beings might play in bringing it about - have transformed over the last two centuries. After a brief look at traditional religious apocalypticism, we explore how apocalypse came to be reconsidered as an entirely this-worldly phenomenon that falls within human power to achieve and demands political attention. Along the way, the course addresses the discovery of entropy in the 19th century, development of the hydrogen bomb in the mid-20th, and the planetary science that has transformed the Apocalypse into a primarily ecological concern over the last half-century.

Offered Winter Quarter by Dan Zimmer for 3-4 units

EARTHSYS 156 (STS 156, SOC 128)

The Future Of Global Systemic Risk

The global risk environment is changing. Seemingly distinct large-scale risks affect what we now realize are mutually interdependent human, socio-technical, and ecological systems. As a result, consequences are more catastrophic, and costs are set to accelerate. How do we determine the top risks of this decade to prioritize actions, and how are both risks and actions likely to evolve and interact? This course investigates the data, methods, and insights mobilized by key actors such as corporations, governments, and academics to assess systemic risk, create future scenarios, and generate predictions. What are the track records of recognized systemic risk assessment and modeling toolkits? Going forward, how can we get better at risk prevention and mitigation? This year, the course will focus on combined risks from the environmental, health, and emerging tech domains. The key objective is to quickly learn relevant vocabularies (risk, tech, and futurist) by engaging with both traditional and emerging assessment methods, in order to discover how to shape positive societal outcomes in the next decade and beyond. The course prepares students for key roles in the assessment, management, and prediction of risks, technologies, markets, industries, infrastructures, and futures. People with these skills can affect the governance principles, strategies, and leadership of corporations, philanthropies, states, economies, and entire societies.

Offered Spring Quarter by Trond Undheim for 3-4 units


Designing Regenerative Societies

The world is changing in contradictory ways. Emerging technology, the evolving geopolitical economy, and ecological challenges present opportunities but also cascading risks. The pathway from our current destructive and extractive economy towards a more regenerative economy is unclear. There is a stark tension between gigascale opportunities such as AI, fusion energy, nanotech, quantum tech, space colonization, and biomanufacturing on the one hand, and degrowth necessities such as rethinking growth and using less resources on the other. This tension is steeped in political choices constrained by industrial power dynamics and conditioned by inequality. To what extent do visions and incentives align across industry, government, and social movements? What would the choice to scale or descale entail in each case - and are they mutually exclusive? The course introduces empirically driven systems thinking with in-depth modules on both emerging tech and degrowth, and scenario-based tech foresight. We combine the tools of technology foresight, gaming, scenarios, speculative fiction, and worldbuilding, exploring and assessing utopian or dystopian trends, visions, and projects (e.g. the Eden project, biomanufacturing at scale, smart cities, the Metaverse, generation spaceships, space colonization, human longevity, mega-disruptive startups, global health governance, radical longtermism, and religious `heavens'). The goal of the course is to gain clarity on the innovation boundaries within which the next 50 years might develop. The course prepares students to become disruptors of governance principles, strategies, and leadership of corporations, philanthropies, economies, and civilizations.

Offered Spring Quarter  by Trond Undheim for 3-4 units