THINK 65 examines paths to human extinction

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This article is the second installment in a series examining how classes are responding to COVID-19.

THINK 65: Preventing Human Extinction explores a series of plausible pathways to human extinction, encouraging students to think about the psychological, social and epistemological barriers that inhibit society from recognizing and evaluating these threats. Through the course, students examine four different threats to human extinction: climate change and environmental degradation, nuclear war, engineered pandemics and misaligned artificial intelligence. 

In addition to discussions and readings, each student in THINK 65 researches one specific threat. For example, Henry Bradley ’22 worked on the threat of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, while Zixian Ma ’22 analyzed the possibility of a misaligned artificial intelligence system causing human extinction.

The first assignment for the class was to come up with a potential existential threat; the second assignment explored how to mitigate the threat. 

“It can be a bit depressing to dwell too much on the problems alone, which is why I believe it’s important to draw hope from thinking about solutions as well,” wrote Vinjai Vale ’22, a student in the class. 

THINK 65 is taught by medical professor Dr. Stephen Luby and Science, Technology & Society (STS) director Paul N. Edwards. Luby grew up in Omaha, Nebraska at the site of an air command base that he wrote was particularly vulnerable to Soviet nuclear missiles, prompting him to reflect upon the idea of human extinction while he went on to become an epidemiologist. In the summer of 2017, Luby contacted Edwards, an expert in nuclear war and climate change. Within half an hour, according to Edwards, he took Luby up on his offer to kickstart THINK 65, and they offered the class for the first time in spring 2019. 

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, Edwards wrote that the team added more conversations on pandemics to the class this year. 

“We aren’t focusing much on coronavirus, since while very dangerous and disruptive, it’s not an extinction risk,” Edwards wrote. “We are talking about some of the lessons we’re learning from the pandemic. One of those is that changes in individual behavior … are only making a small dent (5-8%) in global CO2 emissions. This helps us see how … [change] won’t occur through voluntary individual behavior change, but only through systemic changes in infrastructure.”

“This pandemic can be thought of as a test of our preparedness for a much deadlier pandemic, and we failed miserably,” wrote Henry Bradley ’22. “The silver lining is that this pandemic has people thinking about how we can mitigate pandemic risk in the future.”

The THINK 65 community extends beyond the classroom, creating a group of students and professors that share a common interest in preventing human extinction. One spin-off from the class was the creation of a new track within the STS program. The track, “Catastrophic Risks and Solutions,” is broader in its scope than the class itself, allowing students to focus on “risks that threaten large numbers of people (but aren’t necessarily extinction risks, or even global risks), such as a large Bay Area earthquake or a campaign of genocide,” Edwards wrote. 

Another long-term initiative that came out of THINK 65 was the formation of the Stanford Existential Risks Initiative (SERI), which aims to promote the active study of Global Catastrophic Risks (GCRs) among Stanford undergraduates. SERI consists of around 20 undergraduates, including alumni of THINK 65 and members of Stanford Effective Altruism. SERI’s first initiative was to design a summer program, which is being launched this year remotely. Applicants to the program were required to propose risks they would be interested in investigating and matched with mentors that had experience in these respective fields. The program will run for 10 weeks, from June 22 to August 28.

“If anything, I’d just really like to emphasize SERI’s goal in being a community of people who come at this problem from a lot of different angles and are friends with each other and also enjoy hanging out,” wrote Amy Dunphy ’22, a student involved with the project. “We’re really just trying to build a community of people who care about these issues.”

Contact Smiti Mittal at smiti06 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Smiti Mittal, originally from New Delhi, India, contributes to News, Satire, and Podcasts. Contact her at smiti06 'at' stanford.edu.