ALERT minutes for week #19/2024

Status:yellow

Forecasters did not anticipate events spiraling into global catastrophes this week. But China stockpiling copper, gold and oil could be worrisome, and forecasters very roughly estimated a 2% of the current solar storm turning into a Carrington event class storm.

Geopolitics

China

China is stockpiling copper, gold, and oil. Forecasters see this as cause for concern, considering that it may be an indicator that China is preparing for war. Forecasters thought that if they were in China’s position, attempting an invasion of Taiwan in the coming months might be a good moment, considering political instability in the US and the upcoming presidential elections, along with the US’s other commitments. In such a scenario the US might be less likely to defend Taiwan militarily.

However, there could also be an economic motive for the stockpiling rather than a military one. For instance, if China is expecting additional sanctions.

Currently, the US and the global economy, are highly dependent on Taiwan for semiconductors, with most of the semiconductor foundry market belonging to Taiwan, with the best chips being produced there. These chips are used across a wide array of industries, from frontier AI development to the production of fighter aircraft. But the US is reducing its reliance on Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturing, and if China waited until this process was further along, the US might be much less likely to commit to a war over Taiwan. There are also other reasons for China to wait: forecasters noted that the US Navy will experience a dip in its capacity in the Western Pacific over the next 3-4 years, and that China may have a relatively narrow window of opportunity then.

Forecasters had an aggregated probability estimate of 3% of China attempting to take Taiwan this year, and ranged from 1% to 10%. But they noted that the required military buildup would take a long time and we’re not seeing that yet.

In terms of pathways towards catastrophic and existential risk, forecasters provided some rough sketches. A US-China war would likely be catastrophic for global trade, with many supply chains breaking down. And the US and China are both nuclear armed nations, which might be tempted to use nuclear weapons if they felt a threat to their existence. But in addition to intentional use, a war between the two powers could raise the risk of accidents, where for example a nuclear false alarm is mistakenly responded to with a nuclear response. There have been many such close calls in the atomic age.

China effectively freezes IPOs. Not in itself a cause for concern, but may indicate a desire on the Chinese government’s behalf to further centralize power and have more control over the economy.

The Philippines call for Chinese diplomats to be expelled. The diplomatic row between The Philippines and China continues.

China likely hacked into a payroll system used by the UK’s Ministry of Defence: with names, bank details and possibly personal addresses of current serving, reservist and retired members of the Armed Forces being exposed.

China says it drove away US destroyer in South China Sea by the Paracel Islands

Russia

Russian military personnel have entered an airbase in Niger that is hosting American troops, after a decision by Niger’s junta to expel US forces from the country.

European intelligence agencies are warning that Russia is planning sabotage across the continent, including covert bombings, arson and attacks on infrastructure. It has already been accused of targeting military and logistics sites in Germany, a warehouse in the UK containing aid shipments for Ukraine, and railway lines in Sweden.

Relatedly, the Ukrainian postal services company (Meest) whose warehouse was set on fire in the UK also had a Spanish warehouse that was set on fire. Forecasters didn’t expect this to lead to a serious escalation, and pointed out Russia has crossed lines before in Europe, e.g. the Salisbury attack, and viewed it as perhaps a tit-for-tat in relation to Ukrainian-alleged sabotage attacks on Russian interests.

Two Ukrainians arrested over a Russian plot to kill Zelensky. They were part of a Ukrainian government protection unit.

Russia opens a new front on the Kharkiv region

Russia announces it will test tactical nuclear weapons.

French President Emmanuel Macron made his clearest remarks yet about the possibility of sending French troops to Ukraine, saying in an interview with The Economist that he would be prepared to send them if the Russians had a significant breakthrough and President Zelensky requested French support. Forecasters thought this was unlikely to happen in the next year, more because they didn’t expect a significant enough Russian breakthrough, rather than because Macron won’t actually do it. If this does happen, it would have the potential to cause a catastrophe because two nuclear-armed powers could face off against each other.

Forecasters thought that the fact that Macron is talking about sending troops indicates Russia is on the front foot at the moment.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron implied (but did not directly state) that British weapons can be used by Ukraine within Russia itself

Both of these developments resulted in Russia saying that it will test tactical nuclear weapons.

Russia also summoned the UK Ambassador and said that UK military facilities, installations and equipment in Ukraine and elsewhere could be targeted.

A US soldier was detained in Russia. He appears to have been sympathetic to Russia and Trump, at least in front of his Russian girlfriend.

Russia’s V-Day celebration hints at cracks in Putin’s power since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, since they were somewhat underwhelming.

Middle East

Israeli tanks encircle the eastern half of Rafah. More than 100,000 flee.

US State Department reports Israel may have broken international law with American weapons:

The US denies previous reports that it will do a deal with the Saudis without Saudi-Israel normalization.
Forecasters considered that keeping Saudi-Israel normalization as a possibility provides the US with more leverage over Israel than otherwise.

Iran is threatening to change its official nuclear doctrine if it feels its existence is threatened by Israel. “”We have no decision to build a nuclear bomb but should Iran’s existence be threatened, there will be no choice but to change our military doctrine,” Kamal Kharrazi, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was reported as saying by Iran’s Student News Network on Thursday.” While some forecasters thought that it was clear that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons in spite of this rhetoric, a change in its official policy would represent a substantial step towards the country’s official adoption of nuclear weapons.

Artificial Intelligence

A new US bill would impose export controls on AI software, including proprietary software.

Google announces new protein structure prediction model, Alphafold 3. Forecasters noted that tools like this could potentially enable bad actors to design bioweapons more efficiently. There is no indication that the system will be open-sourced, so Google and others should, one assumes, be able to monitor usage. It is unclear what, if any, checks there are on users and inputs, though currently proteins with up to only 5000 nucleotides can be input, and there is just a small selection of ligands.

Another AI safety researcher quit OpenAI. This comes after Daniel Kokotajlo of the governance team left because of concerns about whether OpenAI would behave responsibly around the time of AGI, and a month after Leopold Aschenbrenner was allegedly fired from the Superalignment team for leaks. The researcher, William Saunders, quit in February, but announced it late last week.

OpenAI put 2 more unreleased LLMs on the LMSYS Chatbot Arena, that seem to perform better than GPT-4:

AI companies OpenAI, Anthropic, and Meta broke their commitments to the UK AI Safety Institute to provide pre-deployment access to their newer models for safety testing. It seems that Google DeepMind stands alone as having kept their word here.

Misc

Bad floods have been happening in southern Brazil. The region can expect more flooding in the future with climate change. Extreme rainfall is expected to become more common, and the infrastructure wasn’t designed for it. “Heatwaves, water scarcity in south-east Brazil and intense rainfall in the south” are expected in the future.

Pandemic treaty talks end without agreed text

H5N1 continues to be a concern, but forecasters didn’t bring up new triggers.

G4 geomagnetic storm predicted for Friday 5/10/24. Auroras will be seen at much lower latitudes, and some disruptions are possible. “Geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth’s surface, potentially disrupting communications, the electric power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations,” NOAA said. “[The Space Weather Prediction Center] has notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action.”.

Forecasters later followed the storm turned out to be more worrisome than expected; a G5 rather than a G4.

A forecaster brings up this estimate of a 0.7% chance per year. Another very roughly estimates a 2% chance of an event like this turning into a Carrington event, and another one

I don’t think there is any major concern to the average person, except perhaps at extreme latitudes, where there might be some effects on power grids. Hopefully grid operators will be able to prevent such effects. Last time there was a storm of this magnitude, the grid was affected in Sweden and South Africa.

But the potential for “the big one” is always out there

Conditions are now ripe for an extremely large CME to have Carrington event-size effects. But the chance of such a CME is very low. In some sense it’s almost impossible to quantify this because we have so few data points in the past. We don’t know whether this interplanetary medium clearing is necessary for a large earth impact. We know that we saw it in 2012 and infer its occurrence for the Carrington event. We also know that strong storms like the current one are relatively rare, with the most recent one occurring 21 years ago. I’m not sure what the current best estimates are of Carrington event plus-size risk for our lifetimes, but if that risk is somehow concentrated around these larger events, then we can get something of an estimate.

With earlier estimates, I estimated that a person with an average life expectancy would face a nearly 50% chance of seeing a Carrington event in their lifetime. I think more recent estimates are lower, but I’m not sure. But let’s suppose there’s a 10% chance, just for the sake of argument. And I don’t know the frequency of these G5 storms, but just for the sake of argument, let’s say they average once every 20 years. Let’s further suppose that 80% of the severe CME risk follows such G5+ storms. Then an average person can expect to see 4 such G5+ events in their lifetime, with each such event accompanied by a roughly 2% chance of a Carrington event-like CME.

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