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€2 million for research into decisions on catastrophic threats



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Professor Nick Bostrom has been awarded a €2 million Advanced Grant by the European Research Council (ERC) for research into improving the way humanity prepares for speculative but potentially catastrophic threats.

The aim of Professor Bostrom and his team at the Future of Humanity Institute, part of the Oxford Martin School, is to find a superior alternative to the 'precautionary principle' so that decision-making can be better guided. 

The project, named 'UnPrEDICT: Uncertainty and Precaution—Ethical Decisions Involving Catastrophic Threats', will build on recent advances in decision theory, computational modelling, and domain-specific risk assessment techniques, and use tools of analytic and moral philosophy.

Professor Bostrom said: "It has been claimed that emerging technologies such as geoengineering, biotechnology, or machine intelligence could have catastrophic impacts on human civilization or the biosphere, indicating the need for precaution until scientific uncertainty has been resolved.

"Yet it is unclear how to apply the precautionary principle to cases where the deeper investigations of scientific uncertainties that it calls for can themselves be a source of catastrophic risk, for example with geoengineering experiments."

Professor Bostrom said the precautionary principle also failed to account for moral uncertainty,even though many decisions depended more sensitively on ethical parameters (such as obligations to future generations) than on remaining scientific uncertainties.

The  team will seek to establish a set of principles by working on three case studies (geoengineering, dual-use biotechnology, and automation and machine intelligence) offering better practical guidance on speculative but potentially catastrophic risks than does the precautionary principle.